Why you should care
You’ll have to sin a little to visit this holy land.
You first see the 65-foot stainless steel cross from the highway, peeking out between the “Holy Land, U.S.A.” sign and the Gothic spires of St. Anne’s Church. Winding uphill, stop at the wooden gate with the brick facade to read a sign warning you that there’s “no trespassing, violators will be prosecuted” and that the property is under video surveillance. If you aren’t afraid for the state of your mortal soul yet, then park — you’ve arrived!
Welcome to this little slice of paradise in Waterbury, Connecticut. But let us start this tour by apologizing: This is neither the Holyland Exhibition museum in Los Angeles nor Orlando’s Holy Land Experience, where waxy biblical figures watch an actor-played Jesus crucified on the reg. If you intended to go to either of those places, we kindly suggest that you bid adieu and take your pilgrimage 17 hours south or 42 hours west.
Still here? Congratulations. We’re not sure how we ended up here either — here being the now eerie dream of John Baptist Greco, a Catholic attorney who created this theme park in the mid-20th century, which during the 1960s and 1970s attracted as many as 40,000 righteous rollers per year. The 18 acres offer a religious experience even for the areligious, replete with replicas of biblical scenes, catacombs and villages built from cinder blocks, bathtubs and other jarring reminders that one person’s trash is another person’s heaven.
… the sculptures beheaded, the villages left haphazard, ravaged by time, wind and likely more than a few horny teenagers …
For now, close your eyes and imagine the resplendent Garden of Eden, the didactic diorama of Daniel in the lion’s den, a sprawling Jerusalem. In its heyday, the site had a chapel, stations of the cross and a thriving ministry. We say imagine because when you open your eyes now, what you’ll see isn’t as impressive: the sculptures beheaded, the villages left haphazard, ravaged by time, wind and, if we’re totally honest, likely more than a few horny teenagers, ever since the Holy Land closed in 1984. “It was the scary place to make out,” says Emily Ewing, who never personally visited but went to school nearby and often heard the folk legends from those who went. “It’s this haunted place. I didn’t know its true history because it’s so shrouded in urban legends.”
But even in its disarray, that’s not to say there is nothing to see at Holy Land if you happen to be rolling through Waterbury and have a taste for something spooky. We’re not saying you should sneak through the stone pillars into this desolate promised land. We’re just saying that if you did, you would then see a marvelous smorgasbord of religious folk art: a plastic Herod’s Palace, a crumbling Tower of Babel and a grate leading to what used to be a catacomb experience, flashlight required.
After a short hike, you finally reach the centerpiece: the cross. Religious iconography aside, the real revelation comes from the view. Here is the best vantage point of Waterbury in all its living Norman Rockwell beauty: the humble New England homes, the highway bustle, the clock tower and the blue collar feel.
Yes, Holy Land is a shade of its former self, in disarray despite the city’s promises to rehabilitate it (in August, the local archbishop led a Mass to celebrate its future renewal, and the mayor has hopes to reopen it in the next few years). While it is safe now, the rape and murder of a 16-year-old girl there in 2010 cast a pall over the area and led to its closure to the public. Some people may see it as creepy rather than appreciate its folksiness, and to enter at all is to enter at your own risk, particularly considering the rust and wear. Not to mention the threat of prosecution.
But if your explorations don’t include risking tetanus, then are you really living up to your God-given Indiana Jones potential anyway?