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

Valle Header Art
My Life Depended on the Very Act of Writing

How I was saved by writing about God and cancer.

Sociologist: Religion Can Predict Sexual Behavior

“Religion and sex are tracking each other like never before,” says sociologist Mark Regnerus.

The Internet Is Not Killing Religion. So What Is?

Why is religion in decline in the modern world? And what can save it?

river dusk
Cleaner, Lighter, Closer

What’s a fella got to do to be baptized?

Magical Thinking and the Canonization of Two Popes

Why Pope Francis is canonizing two popes for all of the world wide web to see.

An Ayatollah’s Gift to Baha’is, Iran’s Largest Religious Minority

An ayatollah offers a beautiful symbolic gesture against a backdrop of violent persecution.

Screenshot 2014-04-23 11.40.54
Atheists Bad, Christians Good: A Review of “God’s Not Dead”

A smug Christian movie about smug atheists leads to an inevitable happy ending.

Ten Ways to Make Your Church Autism-Friendly

The author of the Church of England’s autism guidelines shares advice any church can follow.

Pope Francis: Stop the Culture of Waste

What is the human cost of our tendency to throw away?

chapel door
“Sometimes You Find Something Quiet and Holy”: A New York Story

In a hidden, underground sanctuary, we were all together for a few minutes in this sweet and holy mystery.

Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

From Passover to Easter: Why I’m Grateful to be Jewish, Christian, and Alive

Passover with friends. Easter with family. It’s almost enough to make you believe in God.

Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

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

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.