It was drizzling lightly on Thursday afternoon, a few days before Easter, when we drove up to Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut. The dilapidated Roman Catholic shrine and tourist attraction was built in the 1950s atop Pine Hill at 60 Slocum St. The 52-foot-tall, light-up cross perched on the peak is a landmark that can be seen from Route 84 and for miles around. The rocky hilltop is populated by dozens of makeshift model buildings that depict places and moments from the Bible. But since the park closed in 1984, they’ve fallen into ruin.

When I was last at Holy Land USA in late May of 2011, the place was overgrown with shrubbery like Sleeping Beauty’s kingdom. Scenes from the Easter Passion were hidden among the bushes and trees. I’d meant to come back some time when it wasn’t so leafy—preferably early spring—when the ruins would be easier to pick out. It took me a while.

Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, May 31, 2011. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, May 31, 2011. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)

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Since then the property has been sold and a newly formed nonprofit has pledged “to protect in perpetuity for Christian purposes the 18-acre site atop Waterbury’s Pine Hill known as Holy Land USA. In keeping with Attorney John Greco’s original mission of presenting ‘a pictorial story of the life of Christ,’ Holy Land USA will continue by means of Masses, Christian prayer services, concerts and other mountaintop events to rebuild and restore this special place of prayer where the God of the Bible can be found.”

On Thursday, a police officer happened to be parked just outside the arched gate. A backhoe sat just inside the fence. I asked if it was all right if we went in. You’re not supposed to, he told me, but go ahead.

(“Holy Land is not yet open to the public, but we are working to make that happen,” the park’s website says. “You are welcome to park near the gate and walk around Holy Land during daylight hours. No trespassing is strictly enforced after sunset. We hope to have the park open during the day in 2019.”)

We had the place all to ourselves. We headed up the hill to the left, where you pass under arched gateways that identify the place as “Holy Land.” Beyond is the impressive sight of the model Bethlehem and Jerusalem, all touched with a feeling of mystery and melancholy because it has become a decaying ghost town.

Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, May 31, 2011. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, May 31, 2011. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)

The rocky hilltop had been bluntly shorn of much of its greenery making the moldering dioramas visible. Some beer cans and bottles litter the hillside. But someone seems to have gone to the trouble of painting many of the model buildings and dioramas white.

On the right side of the hill are what remains of scenes from the Christmas Nativity, including the inn reading “no vacancy.” On the left, are the Stations of the Cross—the Easter Passion of Jesus being paraded toward his torture and government execution by being nailed to a cross. The steps and path lead to three crosses at the top of the hill—and views of the surrounding city of Waterbury.

Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)

Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)

Holy Land USA was originally developed by Waterbury attorney John Greco. The son an immigrant shoemaker, Greco grew up to be “a devout Catholic who spent much of his life working with the poor and spreading the Gospel,” the Hartford Courant newspaper has said. He “sermonized on street corners before buying this hill,” The Boston Globe reported in October 1986.

He bought the 18-acre site in 1956 (according to the Hartford Courant). With help from volunteers, he constructed a miniature Bethlehem and Jerusalem and catacombs of Rome. They “recycled cinder blocks, chicken wire, old bathtubs, mannequins, even an old freezer to create a diorama of Biblical scenes that people viewed by walking the site,” the Courant has reported. Some compared the homespun construction to a miniature golf course.

Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, May 31, 2011. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, May 31, 2011. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)

Holy Land USA opened to the public in 1958. Near the entrance, a sign explained that Holy Land USA told the story of Jesus Christ “from cradle to the Cross” in hopes of bringing visitors “closer to Him.” Greco reported that it attracted 40,000 visitors each year in the 1960s. He erected a landmark 56-feet tall steel cross on the hilltop and later one lit-up with neon. After work, he often was up at the park adding to Biblical scenes and welcoming tours. But highway construction in the 1970s, made it harder to get to. And Greco himself was getting older. Crowds declined. Structures began to fall into disrepair.

Holy Land USA closed in 1984 and Greco died at age 90 in 1986. He gave the property to the neighboring Filippini Sisters. The nuns along with a group of Waterbury Catholics calling themselves the Key Committee tried to raise $5 million to maintain the miniature Jerusalem and the cross, but raze the rest, The Boston Globe reported in October 1986. They planned to build 35 new shrines, a chapel and Judeo-Christian education center and offer prayer walks. But they struggled to raise money and plans fizzled.

Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)

Folk art groups talked of preserving the park, while others endeavored to revive the attraction, all without success. A new steel cross was put up in 2008, but vandals broke the spotlights intended to light it up at night. In 2010, the Courant reported visitors could find “Christ on the cross at Calvary with a missing arm, two beheaded camels outside the manger in Bethlehem and naked Adam and Eve mannequins in the Garden of Eden—a mobile trailer filled with fake plants.”

Then in 2013, Neil O’Leary, who was a police officer for decades and rose to be police chief before becoming Waterbury’s current mayor, and Waterbury car dealer Fred “Fritz” Blasius formed a limited liability company that bought Holy Land USA from the Filippini Sisters for around $350,000, the Hartford Courant reported that July. As part of the deal, they promised to preserve the site for Christian and religious purposes. They’ve since established the nonprofit to oversee the property.

“I would like it to be a place of meditation, prayer, peace,” O’Leary told the Courant in 2013. Which is already how people have used it during the past couple decades. Well, that and walking dogs and drinking. The park is easy to wander into as it isn’t fenced off.

Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, May 31, 2011. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, May 31, 2011. (Greg Cook)

The nonprofit replaced the cross in December 2013 with a 52-foot-tall one lit by LEDs that can switch colors “in accordance with the Catholic liturgical calendar, with limited exceptions such as promoting autism and breast cancer awareness. … The color will not be changed for special requests, such as to promote an event or birthday.”

An outdoor Mass was held at Holy Land USA last August on a spot they’d cleared and covered with playground mulch. The service honored Father Michael McGivney, a Waterbury parish priest and founder of the Knights of Columbus, who died in 1980. The nonprofit plans to hold another outdoor Mass under the Holy Land cross on Sunday, April 28, at 3 p.m., led by Auxiliary Bishop Juan Miguel Betancourt.

“We feel that Holy Land will become a quiet refuge for prayer, in the midst of a bustling city and highway,” Hartford Catholic archdiocese spokesperson David Elliott told the Hartford Courant last August. “There is a Holy Land Board, whose members will be discerning a more definitive future for the site in time, through careful consideration and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”


If this is the kind of coverage of arts, cultures and activisms you appreciate, please support Wonderland by contributing to Wonderland on Patreon. And sign up for our free, weekly newsletter so that you don’t miss any of our reporting.


Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, May 31, 2011. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, May 31, 2011. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
Holy Land USA in Waterbury, Connecticut, April 18, 2019. (Greg Cook)
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