Just across the Yankee Expressway from a Bank of America, a GNC health store, and Crazy 8 Trendy Fashion and Footwear For Kids in Waterbury, CT sits Holy Land USA, an 18-acre theme park inspired by Biblical passages and religious teachings. It is the inspiration of John Baptist Greco, a Connecticut attorney with big dreams of providing a safe, motivational place for families to gather and learn about Jerusalem and Bethlehem during the Biblical era. Mr. Greco was a deeply spiritual man, and it was his calling to provide a place like Holy Land USA for the good of the community. In the words of Bob Chinn, grounds chairman at Holy Land USA, “[Mr. Greco] wanted to do this for the people of the community. He felt no one, no matter the race, creed or color, should be separated. He wanted a place for all people to sit and be peaceful.”
Claiming he had received a message from God to build the park, construction on Holy Land USA began in 1955. Mr. Greco’s vision for Holy Land USA was vast, but his financial means in order to do so were anything but. Put simply, Holy Land USA was built very much on the cheap. He built miniature versions of Bethlehem and Jerusalem from such discarded materials as chicken wire, plaster, fiberglass and plywood. He clearly took what he saw as his life’s calling very seriously, as he performed all the work that went into Holy Land USA by himself. He built over 200 structures in the park by hand, and the attention to detail he demanded in his work was very apparent. There was a replica of the Garden of Eden, a diorama of Daniel in the lion’s den, and various tributes and scenes depicting the life of Jesus Christ. The crowning achievement of his work came in the form of a giant 56-foot cross at the top of the hill in the middle of the park and an enormous sign that read HOLY LAND USA. If that weren’t enough, the cross lit up at night. There was to be no mistaking this 18-acre hand-built religious theme park from any other nearby, that’s for sure.
Holy Land USA remained open until 1984, and enjoyed many a successful year of operation during that time. Its peak years were in the 60s and 70s, and up to 40,000 visitors came annually to enjoy its many handcrafted attractions. Mr. Greco closed the park himself in 1984 with plans to improve and expand it, but he died a year later and willed the land to the Religious Teachers Fillipini, a local order of nuns. The park remained closed under their watch, and almost immediately fell into a state of complete disrepair and abandon. Buildings collapsed, the effects of vandalism took their toll, and in descriptions of the park in tourist-based publications like Roadside America, it is advised to not get anywhere near the place if you hadn’t had a recent tetanus shot. Unfortunately, you won’t find any miracle healing powers at Holy Land USA, especially if large slabs of untended rusted metal should get in your way.
The Fillipini Sisters dutifully looked after the property, but due to taxation and insurance concerns, they made no efforts to rebuild Holy Land USA. Various reconstruction efforts happened from time to time, most notably in 1997 when a group of Boy Scouts repaired the HOLY LAND USA sign as a community service. Keep those badges shiny, gentlemen. Additionally, the giant 56-foot cross was taken down in 2008 and replaced with a smaller version. Otherwise, the park was all but dead. However, because potentially meaningless symbolism and irony often play a part in these things, the park was resurrected in 2013 when Mayor Neil O’Leary and local auto dealership magnate Fred “Fritz” Blasius purchased the property from the Fillipini Sisters for $350,000 and announced plans to rebuild and continue John Baptist Greco’s dream. On December 22, 2013, the new cross was illuminated, the surrounding land began to be cleared from its overgrowth, and community efforts towards rebuilding and reimagining the park began to take shape.
Oh, and in 1990, the Flaming Lips shot a music video on the grounds of Holy Land USA for their song ‘Unconsciously Screamin”. But really, let’s stay on topic here. No need for pointless tangents like that one just to provide a suitable ending.