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Holy Land: A Cross and a Crossroads

The hilltop cross in Waterbury, visible for miles around, has a rich, complicated history beneath it.

Holy Land USA was built over 50 years ago as a testament to one man's religious beliefs. Since then, it has become a test of faith for many others.

To its founder John Greco, the 17.7-acre parcel of land atop a rocky Waterbury hill was a way to share Christianity with the masses. To the Religious Teachers Filippini, the order of nuns that now own it, it is a memorial and a burden. To the city of Waterbury, it is an enigma. For 16-year-old Chloe Ottman, it was the last place she saw as she was being raped and murdered.

"Nobody could have imagined an event as horrific as the one that happened up there," Steve Gambini, aide to the Waterbury mayor, said of Ottman's death. "Low-grade annoyances have been on the radar there for a while and police have taken appropriate action. And there are other folks who still take positive interest. ... Some of the more charismatic Hispanic Christians do some Passion services up that way from time to time."

That wide and varying symbolism seems to justify Greco's selection of the site for a Christian icon all those years ago. Like the faith it was meant to embody, Holy Land has an undeniable depth and profundity to it; the sweeping vistas offered from just below the 50-foot cross that crowns the hill are evidence enough of that. And it has, or had, a mass appeal — during its heyday in the 1960s and 70s, the park received more than 40,000 visitors a year.

But, like Christianity, Holy Land has been fraught with more than its fair share of trials. The most recent of those came last July when Waterbury resident Francisco Cruz, then 19 years old, was sentenced to 55 years in prison for raping and strangling Ottman at the foot of the hilltop cross and then dumping her body in the woods.

That event was an exclamation point on the site's long, slow dilapidation. Where buses once paid $20 to park inside the gates, now Slocumb Street lies deserted leading up to the crumbling, chained entrance patched together with "No Trespassing" signs.

"Off the top of my head, we've recently had no complaints of vandalism or loitering or trespassing," said Capt. Chris Corbett of the Waterbury Police Department. "Over time, though, we have occasionally received complaints. [The owners] keep it locked and we patrol the area frequently and that's really the best you can do."

Holy Land was officially closed to the public in 1984, and its grounds are private property. But go to the site on any weekend and you're likely to find plenty of visitors still drawn there, whether by curiosity, nostalgia or faith.

The Rise of Holy Land USA

John Greco was an attorney working in Waterbury in the early 1950s. His Catholic faith ran so deep that it once compelled him to pursue a life as a priest.

Greco was denied entrance to a Roman Catholic seminary on the basis of his poor health, however, and instead graduated from Yale University Law School. He did a great deal of pro bono work through his law practice and was also able to accumulate enough wealth to allow him to pour his faith into a particularly unique vessel.

He began the Holy Land USA project in 1955, planning to build a hilltop re-creation of Jerusalem in Waterbury. Greco used everything from chicken wire to ketchup to bring tangible Catholic history to the masses.

The result was a wildly popular religious theme park, crowned by a 56-foot neon cross visible for miles around. The cross became a beloved landmark for motorists passing through the area.

Today, the site is in stark contrast to what it once was in its heyday. But the cross still remains.

The nuns did not return repeated attempts to contact them, either by phone or in person, and a caretaker at the site said only one nun still lives in the adjacent housing facility.

In an interview in 2009 they spoke about the allure that the cross held for people throughout the United States.

"When people pass on the highway and the cross is not lit, they call immediately," Sister Angeline, 93, one of the two nuns of the Religious Teachers Filippini, said during a 2009 interview with this reporter.

"Especially truckers," added Sister Lucille, 69, the other of the two. "People and truckers from as far away as Florida will call and say 'I passed through and thank you for that cross.' That cross means a lot to many travelers."

Greco turned to the nuns for help with the park soon after he started construction on the park in the 1950s. He turned to Sister Christine, the provincial at the time of the Religious Sisters Filippini order.

Sister Christine, in turn, took Greco up on his offer, believing his proposition to be the perfect combination of a lucrative endeavor (the sisters reinvest the proceeds in the community) and an honest, noble mission. She sent two of her charges, Sister Josephine and Sister Lucy, to live with Greco in a convent just outside the park's gates. 

The sisters began conducting tours for the throngs of visitors, and the arrangement proved fruitful for the order and for Greco.

"It was so beautiful years ago. It was remarkable," said June Sokoli of Naugatuck during a visit to the park in 2009. "It really did Waterbury proud. I hadn't been up here in quite a while. You had to see it in its glory. ... It's making the hair stand up on my neck. It was a place to go and pray and be near God. It was like church outside."

For 25 years, Sisters Josephine and Lucy lived with Greco in a small home that still stands just outside the park's gates. Sister Lucille noted how interesting it was that after being turned away from the church based on his health, Greco was able to reach more people on his own (he lived to be 91) than he might ever have as a priest.

"God works in mysterious ways," she said.

Fall From Grace

Holy Land's fate took a turn for the worse when Greco's health began to deteriorate in the 1980s.

Just before his death in 1986, Greco did a quitclaim deed, leaving the park and plenty of money to support it to the sisters who had helped him run it for so long. There was so much money, in fact, there were plans in place to expand the park.

A pristine, to-scale model of the expansion still stands inside the hall alongside the living quarters. And estimates on the expansion plans have reached as high as $13 million.

Then God's mysterious ways intervened.

"This would have been it today," said Sister Lucille in 2009, pointing to the model of the expansion. "The money was pouring in. And then the man we hired to help us manage the finances, a layperson, absconded with all the funds. We have been hurt many times and nobody knows that sort of thing took place here. The man had helped rebuild another church and we thought he could do the same thing for us. But, something went wrong with him. I don't know ..."

Since losing the majority of the money Greco left to maintain it, Holy Land has fallen into serious disrepair.

Resurrection?

The reverence many once held for the site has been slowly decaying since Greco's death, along with the many dioramas and statues that once defined it.

Today, the park has become something of a joke and an Internet curiosity. It was once featured on Comedy Central and lives on on a number of niche websites.

"It's a fascinating and horrifying wonder of neglect," reads the description on the website Roadside America. "A miniature Bethlehem, impenetrable assemblages of junk, creepy tunnels and blasted out buildings, stories of gang murders and a mysterious order of nuns."

Despite such descriptions, there have been signs of hope in recent years. The largest of these came in the form a new 50-foot cross for the hilltop, which was purchased and installed by a number of benefactors.

The new cross replaced Greco's old, neon one and was erected in a special ceremony on June 18, 2009, presided over by the new Archbishop of Hartford, Henry J. Mansell. While the sisters wouldn't say how much the cross cost, they did say the donations and support they received for the project were surprising and buoying. It let them know that the site still lives in people's minds and matters to them.

The new cross and the positive momentum were left stained the very next summer, however, when Ottman was reportedly raped and killed directly beneath it. Since then, most have been at a loss as to what to do.

Though previously not the case, murder and mystery are now apt descriptions of the Holy Land saga.

Meanwhile, the city of Waterbury has its hands tied because of the structure of the order and their silence on the matter. Gambini said that because the order is not diocesan, the nuns actually answer directly to the Pope and not the archbishop, with whom the city has a good relationship.

"This is just one of those things," Gambini said. "We really don't know who to call."

Gambini said there was a suggestion about six or seven years ago that the nuns were actively looking to sell the property, but nothing ever came of it. And the likelihood of it selling in the future is slim; the same characteristics that make the site so unique and probably drew Greco to it are offputting to potential buyers.

"The problem with that property is it sits on a ledge outcropping and the development potential is limited by the amount of dynamite you can throw at it," Gambini said. "It's a topographically challenging area ... and the city would have no interest in it because we don't really like to get into the land business."

Gambini added that the city could investigate the property and likely would be able to determine that it is not being used for the charitable purposes it was initially marked for. In doing that, Waterbury then could conceivably change the property's tax status and begin sending the nuns tax bills in an effort to force a decision on its future.

"But that's not in the character of Waterbury to do that," Gambini said. "If we were less generous folk, maybe. But this is not something we would ever do. ... We just have to make the best of it until they decide what they want to do."

To see Holy Land as it was in its heyday, take a look at this great Flickr gallery.

Erin Conneely July 31, 2011 at 01:00 PM
thanks of the article. It was well written and gave me information I had been unaware of. More articles like this are needed. -- Erin of West Hartford Connecticut

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