Holy Land USA

The arched, cement entrance gate of Holy Land USA (pictured below) in Waterbury, Connecticut, is made to look like Jerusalem circa 33 AD or so. Except for the chainlink fencing blocking the central arch and the printed signs warning: “No trespassing or loitering on this property. Violators will be prosecuted.”

But the gate is more for show than to keep people out, so you can just walk around one side or the other and get in. The place is quiet, and in the spring when we visited, hot and deserted, except for birds.

The 17.7 acre site was opened in the 1950s by an attorney and Roman Catholic by the name of John Greco, apparently as a cross between an amusement park and a shrine. During the 1960s and ‘70s, some 40,000 visited each year. But it was shut down for renovations in 1984, and never reopened. Greco died two years later and left the property to an order of nuns, the Religious Sisters of Filippi. Over the years, there has been talk and even the beginning of some efforts to restore and reopen the park, but for now it remains a ruin.

To the left of the entrance, is a pair of stone arches labeled Jeusalem and Holy Land (pictured above). Pass under arches and walk into the trees. Running up the shady hill are signs and mini, broken down buildings made from plywood, wire and concrete that create models of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. It’s hard to decipher the original layout as so much has been broken by vandals and the weather and been overgrown by bushes and trees.

What remains of the Bethlehem section hints at the Christmas story of the birth of Jesus. Here is Herod’s Palace (pictured above), the plywood walls now falling down and its red paint flaking off. Nearby is a concrete arch bearing the statement: “There came wise men from the East.”

But the much of the park tells the Easter story of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. Follow the signs up the hill, past a cave with jail bars on the front, past broken down mini temples and a smashed relief that depicted the Last Supper (pictured above), past an empty concrete tomb to a chainlink fence and the sign “Jesus is nailed to the cross” (pictured below). So far the displays have all been miniatures, but beyond the fence stand three life-sized wood crosses. The modern chainlink fence clashes with the historical tone, but the hike up the hill to the surprise of the large crosses (a couple graffitied with red paint, which from a distance suggests blood) remains solemnly affecting.
If you head back down the hill and follow the paved path that rings the park, you find a graffiitied Christ the King statue, a Holy Land USA sign (composite photo below) that recalls the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles, and a giant cross at the top of the hill, a landmark that is visible from Route 84.
Holy Land USA is a haunting, ruin. It prompts thoughts on merging of religion and entertainment in America. And it becomes eerie in as a ghost town. In July 2010, a teenage girl was reportedly murdered near the giant cross (pictured below). We didn’t know that when we visited, but even without that knowledge we’ve watched enough movie thrillers that end in spooky amusement parks that even on a sunny day the abandoned, overgrown ruins sparked dark imaginings.

Roadside America‘s description of Holy Land USA

A report on the 2010 murder.

A 2001 report on plans to revive the park.

Photos copyright by The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research.

The giant cross as seen from Route 84.

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