Deal promises new life for abandoned Catholic shrine

WATERBURY, Conn. — The Garden of Gethsemane is gone. The Via Dolorosa, now overgrown with brush, is impassable. A statue … Continued

WATERBURY, Conn. — The Garden of Gethsemane is gone. The Via Dolorosa, now overgrown with brush, is impassable. A statue of Christ with outstretched arms at the park’s entrance is missing a head. The roof on Herod’s Temple has collapsed.

Holy Land USA once awed the curious and the faithful. Lately it endured vandalism, wrestled (and lost) a battle with nature and faded from memory.

Now the abandoned Bible-themed shrine from the 1950s may find new life.

Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary and local car dealer Fritz Blasius bought the 17-acre ruin from the Morristown, N.J-based Pontifical Institute for the Religious Teachers Fillippini.

The park closed in 1984, two years before the death of its founder, John Baptist Greco, a devout Roman Catholic. He left the property to the order of nuns who watched it crumble from their convent window on the site, eschewing several attempts to restore the park.

O’Leary told The Waterbury Observer that he and Blasius will form a nonprofit to raise the $350,000 to turn the property into a Christian shrine where the city’s ethnic groups can display their faith.

A Yale University graduate and seminary school dropout, Greco built the once-vibrant miniature replica of Bethlehem and Jerusalem out of plywood, scrap metal and discarded objects. His years of toil turned a craggy mountaintop into an attraction that drew thousands of Christian pilgrims in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

“Holy Land was his prayer, his expression of the Catholic faith,” said the Rev. Frank Papa, who lived with Greco at Holy Land during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Papa recalled how Greco practiced law during the day and chiseled biblical passages into stone at night.

“He’d take anything — even broken toilets,” said Papa, now a chaplain for the Virginia-based Human Life International.

In the decades since it closed, the park has attracted photographers, trespassers, vandals, folk art enthusiasts and bloggers of cultural oddities.

Three years ago, it made headlines when a girl was raped and strangled at the foot of the shrine’s cross.

Daniel Prince, onetime curator of the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, told The New York Times that Greco’s structures were like “The pyramids of backyard projects.”

Author and essayist Simon Schama mentions Holy Land USA in his book “Memory and Landscape,” which examines the interconnectedness of nature and religious expression.

Joy Bush, a documentary and fine art photographer in Connecticut, has captured the decaying theme park with her lens every five years for more than two decades.

“There is a sense of spirituality there that you couldn’t dismiss,” said Bush, whose photographs are on exhibit at the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury. (”Holy Land: Photographs by Joy Bush” runs through Sept. 8.)

Greco was born to Italian immigrants and never married. He began preaching and proselytizing in the 1940s and ‘50s when he founded the Connecticut chapter of the Catholic Campaigners for Christ, a group of laymen who preached on street corners.

In the 1950s, before Greco began building Holy Land, he and the campaigners erected a 32-foot “Peace Cross” on the mountain, which to this day is a beacon for travelers along Interstate 84.

The nonprofit plans to replace the current cross — erected in 2008 to replace a structurally unsound one — and make it more like Greco’s original cross.

Greco’s friend, Papa, said he has mixed feelings about the park reopening as a multicultural Christian shrine. His fondest memories of Greco are of him leading tour groups through the park proclaiming God’s love through a megaphone.

“If they keep it in the spirit of what John was doing, proclaiming Christ’s message, then it will survive,” Papa said. “If not, it will fail.”

(Ann Marie Somma writes for Hartford Faith & Values.)

 

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, Religion News Service LLC.

  • Hildy J

    To call this a “shrine” is absurd. It was and will be a theme park. It’s sad that a religion – founded by the poor, meeting in believers’ houses, and led by people who lived hand to mouth through the charity of those they preached to – now wastes money on elaborate churches, theme parks, and the like rather than giving up the pretentions they acquired from the Roman emperors, European monarchs, and American megachurches and returning to the simplicity of its roots.

Read More Articles

shutterstock_186364295
This God’s For You: Jesus and the Good News of Beer

How Jesus partied with a purpose.

egg.jpg
Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.

shutterstock_186566975
Hey Bart Ehrman, I’m Obsessed with Jesus, Too — But You’ve Got Him All Wrong

Why the debate over Jesus’ divinity matters.

SONY DSC
Dear Evangelicals, Please Reconsider Your Fight Against Gay Rights

A journalist and longtime observer of American religious culture offers some advice to his evangelical friends.

shutterstock_186090179
How Passover Makes the Impossible Possible

When we place ourselves within the story, we can imagine new realities.

shutterstock_186795503
The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

shutterstock_185995553
How to Debate Christians: Five Ways to Behave and Ten Questions to Answer

Advice for atheists taking on Christian critics.

HIFR
Heaven Hits the Big Screen

How “Heaven is for Real” went from being an unsellable idea to a bestselling book and the inspiration for a Hollywood movie.

This Passover, We’re Standing at an Unparted Red Sea

We need to ask ourselves: What will be the future of the State of Israel — and what will it require of us?

pews
Just As I Am

My childhood conversion to Christianity was only the first of many.

shutterstock_127731035 (1)
Are Single People the Lepers of Today’s Church?

In an age of rising singlehood, many churches are still focused on being family ministry centers.

2337221655_c1671d2e5e_b
Mysterious Tremors

People like me who have mystical experiences may be encountering some unknown Other. What can we learn about what that Other is?

bible
Five Bible Verses You Need to Stop Misusing

That verse you keep quoting? It may not mean what you think it means.

csl_wall_paper
What C.S. Lewis’ Marriage Can Tell Us About the Gay Marriage Controversy

Why “welcome and wanted” is a biblical response to gay and lesbian couples in evangelical churches.