“Working on a Building: John Greco’s Holy Land USA”

NOTE: This paper was originally written while a student in the MLA program at Temple University, was “published” to my old “Astro” site around 2003, moved to the old colinhelb.com, found on The Wayback Machine, and copy and pasted here. There may be some issues… Also, I know other (more academic?) versions of this paper exist, as well as a photo series, and a video edit (mostly of said photos). I’ll keep hunting.

From the mammoth parking lot of the Brass Mill Center Shopping Center, a 150-store mall in Waterbury, Connecticut, an astonishingly contrasting panorama surrounds Interstate 84. The mall “occupies the [former] site of the Scovill Manufacturing Company, one of the three large[st] brass mills that [once] made Waterbury the “Brass Capital of the World.” To the south of the mall rests the Old Saint Josephs Cemetery, a cemetery containing audaciously large statues and mausoleums erected in memory of those who passed in the 1800s and early 1900s. To the east, a vastness of relatively new, Levittownesque housing developments dots the landscape. Gazing to the west, as many are understandably drawn to do, a massive crucifix sits atop a rocky hill side. The cross, 52 feet of steel and plastic, appears to sit alone, staring down at those worshiping the almighty dollar rather than the almighty God. Without further investigation, little more seems to share the hilltop. Nothing more is visible from the roadside aside from steep cliffs of rocks and an ancient, neglected chain link fence. But, if the consumers of commodity were to drop their packages of new clothing, games, toys, and scented candles, run across the busy interstate (not recommended), scale the rocks, and ascend to the cross, a strange world straddling unrequited religious devotion and bizarre kitsch the likes of which are unseen elsewhere in the area would reveal itself.

Surrounding the ostensibly lonely cross is a park (of sorts) once known as Holy Land USA. Holy Land USA was a Christian-themed tourist attraction. It once boasted throngs of visitors every year, now it encircles the cross eerily quiet, uncared for, and destroyed by time, the elements, and vandals. It is possible that if curiosity never got the best of you, a lifetime could be spent in Waterbury without ever knowing what Holy Land USA was or why it ever existed in the first place. Though only mere yards away from residential and commercial areas, it is quite removed from the routines of everyday life by “No Trespassing” signs, location (there is no need to pass by its entrance unless it is your destination), and purely in the sense that it does not seem to fit in with 21st century America. Once a “legitimate tourist stop,” now it merely offers refuge for teenagers, joggers, and few others.

Holy Land USA had its genesis on November 10, 1956 with the dedication of a 32-foot tall cross on Pine Hill built by John Greco and the Catholic Campaigners for Christ. John Greco was a short, sickly-looking, yet surprisingly active, former seminary student turned lawyer. Though he never became a priest, he continued to live a life of great devotion to his faith, never marrying and producing only one child: Holy Land USA. With the formation of the Catholic Crusaders for Christ, Greco had previously taken part in other anomalous activities of devotion such as the erection of the now infamous “Put Christ back in Christmas” billboards and the construction of a “mobile nativity” built atop of an old one-axle trailer. In the years that followed the dedication of the original cross, Greco began construction of miniature replicas of the Biblical sites of Bethlehem and numerous “grottos” depicting tales of Christ’s life and the history of Christianity. In 1958, Holy Land USA (originally called Bibleland) was officially opened and, eventually, began attracting 40,000 to 200,000 visitors per year (depending on who you ask).

At the height of its popularity, “the 17-acre ‘Land of the Lord’ [depicted] scenes from Bethlehem and Jerusalem [and] consisted of 200 miniature buildings and figures of varying sizes…” Throughout the 1960s, Greco tirelessly (and often single handedly) built Holy Land USA up from the single cross to a vast “encyclopedia” of Christian knowledge, adding the Judeo-Christian Culture Center, a “Garden of Eden,” a chapel, a convent, a library, and an assembly hall. Aside from Greco’s buildings, elements such as mannequins splattered in red paint, hand lettered and carved signs, Middle Eastern souvenirs, kitschy Vatican mementos, and actual pieces from the 1964 World’s Fair adorned the landscape. Eventually, the original pine cross was replaced with the illuminated 52-foot steel cross that still stands today.

Greco, the ethereal altruist, never charged the visitors of Holy Land USA, aside from “a small charge” for parking. As a result, repairs and up-keep were impossible for Greco – the sole grounds keeper in the later years of the park – both financially and physically. In 1984 Holy Land USA officially closed its gates, but it had begun a downward spiral of dilapidation, vandalization, and decreased popularity for nearly a decade before. Almost as quickly as Greco could build it, Holy Land USA was in need of massive amounts of upkeep. From the start, the delicate nature of the materials used in its construction along with a virtual “welcome sign” to vandals added to its physical instability. The widening and modernization of 1-84 may have made Holy Land USA more accessible to visitors, but at a cost of a portion of the 17.7-acre site including many of the “grottos” Greco had labored over.

Holy Land USA’s undetermined role, straddling between being merely a questionable Catholic curiosity and being yet another roadside attraction, continues to invite (albeit unofficially invited) visitors despite, or possibly because of, its constant and current dilapidated state. Some visitors come to view its kitschy brilliance, some to pay homage to Greco’s life and vision, others come to remember when, and still others come to visit what they view as actual sacred land. From the beginning, Greco was very vocal in stating that Holy Land USA was “not meant as a shrine or a place of worship but rather as a place for inspiration and education.” Greco’s insistence on the emphasis of Holy Land USA as teacher rather than preacher has not hindered a fueled debate from all sides begging the question of “what is Holy Land USA” and “what should its future be?” Officially, the Catholic Church does not recognize it as an act of devotion, many area people seem to care very little about its existence and, aside from the minuscule activities of the sisters of the Religious Teachers Filippini and a group of Boy Scouts earning a badge, not much has been in done to the property in quite some time.

The Religious Teachers Fillipini have been the only occupants of the grounds of Holy Land USA since Greco’s death in 1986. They have acted as its “spiritual directors” as per Greco’s wishes – the only wishes for the future of Holy Land Greco voiced prior to his death. They do not actually own the property – that honor continues to belong to what remains of Greco’s Catholic Crusaders for Christ. The Religious Teachers Filippini, an order of nuns whose teachings “promote the dignity of womanhood, and help influence a healthy family life,” were, in Greco’s lifetime, active in running the park. In the early 1970s “the Sisters had the complete charge of the administration of the entire project of Holy Land [USA], which included reservations for tours through communication of telephone and letter-writing; supervision of the Lending Library and the Gift Shop.” Today, the order continues to “reside at the convent, but flatly refuse to give any information about the current affairs of the park.” A visitor today is just as likely to see spray paint and decapitated statues as “Bethlehem” and “Jerusalem.” Though the sisters of the Religious Teachers Filippini no longer extend an open invitation (or answer correspondences), people do continue to visit.

In the nearly two decades of the park’s existence as a “closed park,” interest and debate has not subsided as much as one might think. The Waterbury Region Convention and Visitors Bureau claims “more than 150 people a year phone” concerning inquiries into Holy Land USA. Dana Alsdorf of the Waterbury Region Convention and Visitors Bureau said “not a week goes by that I don’t get at least one call about Holy Land [USA]. ‘Is it open? Can we go?’ I took three Holy Land calls last week.” In a “Memorandum to the Class of 2006,” Editor-In-Chief of The Dartmouth [College] Review J. Lawrence Scholer suggests a trip to Holy Land USA for incoming freshmen “seeking a more wholesome experience.” And talks of plans to do “something” with the site continue on various levels.

After spending the night at my mother’s house in Yardley, Pennsylvania (in order to borrow her car); I awoke at the ungodly hour of four AM to begin my trek, my pilgrimage, if you will, to the holy land. Well, not the holy land, but a holy land – John Greco’s Holy Land USA. With less sleep than a trucker hopped up on diet pills pulling an all-nighter, I ventured the nearly four-hour journey across the New Jersey Turnpike, George Washington Bridge, Cross Bronx Express Way (in hindsight, I realize I should have taken the Tappan Zee Bridge), into Connecticut, and onto I-84; arriving just after sunrise. I had read so much about the sight of the 52-foot steel cross glaring down at the motorists of I-84 from atop Pine Hill that a glorified image just short of Christ incarnate had entered and permeated my mind’s eye. I actually drove by the exit as I stared up at the cross internally (and externally) debating with myself asking “is that it?” only to answer myself with “no that can’t be it.” Well, it was it. My u-turn occurred a few exits west of Waterbury at an exit ironically occupied by the Connecticut Trucker’s Museum. I had no time to stop, I had to get to Holy Land USA before the sisters of the Religious Teachers Filippini returned from services – I was unsure of what their feelings towards my pilgrimage would be.

After some intensive internet research concerning the location of Holy Land USA, I pinpointed a street called Slocum Street – a small, half-blocked-length dead-end street in a quiet unassuming neighborhood between I-84 and the downtown business district of Waterbury – as the entrance way into the park.

“Look for the tiny metal signs,” was a statement that recurred throughout roadside attraction websites such as RoadsideAmerica.com.

“There is no way,” I thought, “that a park closed for nearly two decades, could still be gotten to by way of following ‘tiny metal signs’ erected decades earlier.” But there they were, directly off of the exit (exit 32 of I-84); simple, small, white-with-black-lettering signs containing only “HOLY LAND” in block letters and an arrow facing either to the right or left, depending on its orientation to the park. Before I knew it, I was driving on Sloacum Road – which quickly turned from being a dead-end to a drive way. Past the barely noticeable “No Trespassing” signs, the still-standing gateway to Holy Land USA exposed itself in front of me. I quickly turned around, grinding gears, and exited the area in order to park in, and therefore blend into, the neighborhood surrounding Holy Land USA. The lower-middle class houses around Holy Land USA seem to share in both the working class ethic of Greco and his park and the heavily ornamented Catholicism I was introduced to by my grandmother. (The Virgin Mary resides in more than a couple back and front yards along nearby Pleasant Street.)

The gate for Holy Land USA is closed and entering the dozen or so remaining acres of the park is highly frowned upon by the Sisters, but entering does not involve any actual scaling of fences or walls. In other words, there was no “breaking” to accompany my “entering.” To the right of the main gate, between the gate and the decrepit Chapel exhibiting the “In Memory of A.C. Greco” plaque , a highly-tread path leads to the remains of Greco’s vision, an entry into the otherworldliness of Holy Land USA.

Immediately upon entering, I was struck with an eerie feeling I still cannot fully explain. This was no longer Connecticut; this was Holy Land USA – a place with a unique aura about it. The cross, which seemed smaller from the road than my inflated imagination had dreamt, now stood upon the hill only a couple hundred yards away from me, staring down as if to protect the sacred space I was entering. I am not a religious person; I have never taken communion or attended church regularly and do not consider myself a Christian, but spiritual-type feelings overwhelmed the cynic inside of me. If this is what God was, then I believed in God, or, at least, I believed in Greco’s devotion to Holy Land and that he believed very deeply in his God and his faith. How could anyone deny that?

Holy Land’s parking lot sits just inside the gate scattered with trash bags seemingly filled years earlier with grass, twigs and debris and left to decay into the land. Between the parking lot and the high grade incline to the “park,” a four-foot statue of Jesus welcomes visitors. The now-handless statue stands, arms extended, atop a plaque reading “come to me all you who labor and are burdened and I will give you rest.” To the left of the statue rests the rusted frame of a child-sized chair, out of reach for visitors to actually rest upon, but it is doubtful that the structurally unsound chair could physically provide the rest promised. Is it meant as a joke? Elsewhere in the park signs seem to equally proclaim both an undying devotion and a slight, dry humor.

The most blatantly kitschy aspect of Holy Land USA was also Greco’s personal labor of love: the miniature models. Clearly visible from the gate, to the left of the afore mentioned statue (the first of many varied representations of Jesus found throughout the park), a rock and cement wall surrounded by overgrown and unkempt bushes offers three entranceways into the miniature land. Greco, reportedly only standing 4’11”, apparently constructed almost everything to his own measurements. Aside from the obvious and intentional smallness of the miniature buildings, signs are positioned as if for a five-foot tall person and entranceways require most of us to duck in order to pass through.

Beyond the entranceway, in front of Greco’s Bethlehem, a “normal-sized” (or more “normal” than the extreme miniature-ness of the city behind it) cave sits behind what looks like a hardened puddle of cement in the ground with “every day is Christmas” written as if by a stick or a finger (much like twelve year old anointing newly laid sidewalks across America). The “cave” appears to have once represented the manger in which Jesus was born – evident from the shape, positioning, and the sign. Jesus, the Wise Men, Mary and Joseph have long been absent; instead, the interior of this unstable structure, behind a once sturdy wire fence, a dangerous interwoven dance of chicken wire and jagged rocks unfolds. In front of the manger, there looks to be the beginnings of an apparently unfinished cleanup job. Piles of wood and sheet metal, which once may have been components of structures somewhere in the hillside behind it, now lay dormant and unused. It would not be unbelievable if that same pile has sat there since Greco placed it there some years earlier.

Once, there may have been a clear, defined border between mini-Bethlehem and mini-Jerusalem, but it is unclear now. Years of nonexistent upkeep and landscaping have rendered the structures unsound and the paths nearly unnavigable. Most of the buildings of (what appears to be) Bethlehem are generic and non-descript. They look like what a Western view of a stereotypical, Biblical Bethlehem would look like. The word Arabian comes to mind, or should I say, Arabian by way of Hollywood.
Curiously adding to the role of Holy Land USA as educator, some buildings are labeled. I doubt that the “actual” structures were labeled quite as blatantly as Greco’s King’s Tomb, Herod’s Palace, Wailing Wall, and Rachel’s Tomb; but how else could the visitors know what is what?

Two “types” of buildings scatter the land. The first is most common and apparently more able to withstand the test of time. Houses and buildings are simply boxy, wooden structures constructed of plywood or particle board. That is not to say that these buildings are in good condition, not by any means. These structures are often falling apart just as the second category is, but the basic structure can still be seen as a structure rather than a pile of rubble with only slight notions of a building evident. The second type of structure represents possibly Greco’s more ambitions side, but in the end, could not have been expected to last. These have an appearance more like the buildings on The Flintstones. These basic structures consist of a wooden frame covered in cement causing it to resemble an “Arabic” looking structure. The sheer amount of heavy cement sitting atop the moisture-eroded wooden (plywood, peg board, etc.) super-structure caused many of these buildings to collapse in upon themselves.

If my assumptions concerning the border between Bethlehem and Jerusalem are correct, or at least slightly accurate, it appears that Bethlehem may have been for looking up at from the trail below, but Jerusalem was for the visitors to enter and walk through as if they were Godzilla walking through Tokyo. Overgrown as they may be, paths still traverse up the hillside through Jerusalem.

One of the many paths consists of what appears to be a walkable version of the Stations of the Cross. Upon broken, obviously hand-built, steps with bent metal piping serving as an unsteady railing, visitors can ascend up towards three crosses. Crudely-built, small, stone signs announce “Jesus is condemned to death,” “Jesus meets his mother,” “Jesus is helped by Simon,” “Jesus is helped by Veronica,” “Jesus falls a second time,” “Jesus speaks to the women,” “Jesus falls a third time,” “Jesus is nailed to the cross,” and “Jesus is laid to the tomb.” Some are completely destroyed, removed, or otherwise nonexistent but what remains spells out a surprisingly nearly complete Stations of the Cross.

Along the path, which takes a certain level of keenness to follow in its dilapidated state, a brick monument with unintelligible handwritten proverbs (I assume) houses a 3-D depiction of Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” (Again, it seems that historical accuracy was not as important as the “known” cultural images.)

Much of the area seems as though it is representative not of the mythical visions of Biblical holy land, but of a post apocalyptic vision of a small town; sort of a Mad Max meets the Smurfs minus the over sized mushrooms. Trees and bushes have grown far beyond there needed height to preserve the illusion of scaled representation. If correctly manicured and cared for, it seems that the bushes and trees could be in cahoots with the charade. In its current state, they offer only slight shade from the elements. As if from a great war, buildings stand in varying stages of destruction next to piles of debris. Tin, piping, fence gates, cement, stone, cinder blocks, wood, and particle board litter the land representing assumed locations of former structures. Fallen structures lay undisturbed next to the remaining, partially intact, buildings. The buildings that actually remain standing are only still standing because they have not fallen yet, surly they will one day.

Throughout the rough terrain and sprite-sized homes is the occasional “normal sized” structure (much like the Last Supper structure). A small tributary path leads to a full-sized monument, with Coney Island-type plastic lettering across the top (only a few remain), housing a cauldron reminiscent of a classic witch’s fairy tale. Above, the once see through Plexiglas ceiling is now jagged and dangerous. The Lord’s Prayer is hand written in paint in Spanish, English, French, and Italian across the top along with scribbled graffiti.

Another brick and cement, “full-sized” structure contains possibly the strangest of Greco’s signs. It is difficult to make any actual sense of it – is it silly, a joke, or should one appreciate it in much the same way one appreciates the drawings of a child. Along the top of the structure reads “Eye hath not seen nor heard neither have entered into the heart of man… the things which god hath prepared.” Aside from the unusual use of “eye” rather than “I,” other anomalies are evident. Before the word “eye” is a baby doll’s eyeball cemented into the structure as if part of the sentence, likewise an ear precedes the word “heard” and a valentine-type heart precedes the word “heart.” The truly humorous aspect of this particular structure is that Greco apparently ran out of room after the word “man,” having to continue down the side of the structure. This marriage of kitsch and devotion is clearly evident throughout the area. If Greco lacked anything, it was not devotion, but possibly planning.

Upon my original entrance onto the grounds of Holy Land USA, I bypassed Jerusalem and Bethlehem in order to venture further into the park; I had to see the cross up close. I had to touch it and I had to get away from the entrance (the nuns would surely be returning from services soon). The walk toward the cross is a high-grade ascension, clearly not handicapped accessible or kind to the elderly. Along the path sits the Holy Land USA sign. The Holy Land USA sign is an obvious tip of the hat to Hollywood – to an illiterate, the two signs would be completely interchangeable. The sign was redone by Boy Scouts, but is now, once again, in a state of increasing dilapidation. If the land surrounding the sign were properly landscaped, it seems that the sign would be clearly viewed from town, but currently, the sign is unseen from anywhere in the park aside from the vacant parking lot. On the ground below the Holy Land USA sign “Honor God” is spelled out in cement garden trimming.
The cross is so large that it seems that one can be approaching it for quite a while. It is quite beautiful, not in the spiritual sense or the aesthetic sense, but in the sense of appreciation towards the goodness of mankind. Greco, without concern for monetary gain or notoriety, erected the cross which stands in stark contrast to the park surrounding it. Whereas the miniature Bethlehem and Jerusalem act as a small recreation of the larger actual – destroyable, fragile, and hidden in the hill – the cross is a large recreation of the smaller actual – steel, seen, unmoving, and unrelenting. Up close, the cross reveals itself to be in barely better shape than the surrounding area (covered in graffiti proclaiming “Ben + Jackie friends 4 ever” and other more lewd proclamations), but from afar, as it was meant to be seen, it stands strong, watching over the fragile land below. A small, chain link fence surrounds the concrete base of the cross, but the gate remains unclosed allowing visitors and vandals alike to enter up the four steps to stand with the cross as it overlooks the once-powerful brass producing town of Waterbury.

Traditionally, Waterbury has been a very Catholic town – nearly a dozen churches can be found within walking distance of Holy Land USA, half of them Catholic. Today, many of the plants and factories that once caused Waterbury to be dubbed “The Brass Capitol of the World,” have closed and repairs, much like those of Holy Land USA, remain undone. Poor and desperate, the center of town surrounding what was once a bustling Main Street has been left in squalor and decrepitation. The six lanes of I-84 now act as a dividing line between the Waterbury of the past and the Waterbury of the present. To the north and east, the large multi-stored Brass City Mall gleams in its newness and commercial brilliance surrounded by planned developments. To the west of I-84, Waterbury’s downtown district looks not unlike Holy Land USA – hand painted signs inform patrons of new locations for the businesses that once occupied what is now an area only sympathetic to narcotics and urban plight.

Sadly, it seems, that Holy Land USA is not the only closed, formerly thriving piece of the larger puzzle that is Waterbury, Connecticut. Factories, if standing at all, are equally defaced with graffiti and garbage. Parking lots to the once active plants are now filled with only remnants of occasional, transitory inhabitants. Boarded-up houses line the streets and those that are not boarded-up seem to be existing on borrowed time. I am unsure of what Waterbury was like in Greco and the Catholic Crusaders for Christ’s heyday. I suppose that it is possible that the town has not changed much in the past half century, that it has been experiencing a downward spiral of crime and destruction for some time, but I doubt that Greco would have remained idle as this all occurred around him. He cared for his town nearly as much as he cared for his God. What he did for Waterbury in the past, evident by way of self-financed campaigns and community activities, was never done in hopes of personal gain, but for the good of the community.

If Holy Land USA were ever to reopen its gates, the economic wellbeing of the city would surely be the greatest benefactor. Alsdorf claims “the average leisure traveler spends $104 per day. If crowds like [those who visited at the height of the park’s popularity] showed up again, they’d spend an estimated $4 million a year in Waterbury.” Without Holy Land USA, Waterbury has very little to offer the traveler of I-84 aside from a quick lunch at one of the many Brass Mill Shopping Center eateries or a sad view of a once-powerful blue collar town.

Numerous plans and ideas surrounding Holy Land USA’s future have existed and clashed over the years, but nothing (and I mean nothing) significant has ever actually occurred. Ranging from a multi million dollar plan for a complete overhaul to a small, volunteer-based “clean up.” Secular and religious groups and individuals have done a lot of talking, but very little doing. Personally, I have fallen in love with Holy Land USA just how it is. That is not to say that I enjoy the neglected state of the hilltop, but in this age of research-based fabrication, focus groups, and faceless corporations; Holy Land USA is one place that a person can view one mind’s unfiltered dream. I highly recommend a visit, but if you go, you do so of your own accord – I take no responsibility. And please, for Greco, respect what remains of this fragile, bizarre world.