One of my favorite anecdotal bombs to drop on people after they’ve known me awhile is that I was a preacher’s kid. For part of my childhood, my old man was a reverend and my mom a Sunday school teacher. For many years, I was a Good Christian Kid. I attended morning worship and evening youth group and went to Jesus camp twice a year. I built houses in Mexico, played guitar in the church band and hate-ate potato salad at countless church potlucks.
During my teen years, my family and religious life did a 180, a fortuitous change I eventually came to appreciate. I’ll spare you the tedious details of how religion and I parted ways, but according to one of my old hometown pals, perhaps it was never meant to be. Recently, while we were discussing how childhood behavior can be indicative of how seriously a person will take religion as an adult, she reminded me of the summer of 1988 when I earned the most points in Vacation Bible School. When I asked why that meant anything other than my being an exemplary bible school student, she said, “all the other kids used their points to buy bibles at the VBS store, but you bought a tin pot that you wore on your head for a week and demanded to be called Johnny Appleseed.” Haha, what a dingdong. (Being that the items in the VBS store were donations, I can’t help but wonder what asshole donated a tin pot.)
I mention all this so you might get a sense of why exploring the abandoned Holy Land theme park gave my brain a few new wrinkles. Wandering through the crumbling, miniature village of Bethlehem and climbing through the “court of the Jesuits” felt surreal and eerily familiar in a way that is only understandable by those who grew up thinking they’d burn in hell if they didn’t accept Jesus Christ of Nazareth into their hearts as their personal lord and savior.
Oh, right, this is supposed to be about Holy Land. Ok, well, Holy Land U.S.A was a religious theme park in Waterbury, Connecticut that was open from 1956-1984. Located on Pine Hill, the park stretched just over 17 acres and hosted around 40,000 visitors a year.
Holy Land gates and recently boarded up chapel behind the fence. The chapel was used by the nuns who lived right outside the entrance.
The park was the work of dubiously named attorney John Baptist Greco and volunteers from his organization, Companions of Christ. Greco, acting upon a PM from God, set out to construct a park that depicted the story of Jesus Christ according to the New Testament. Using repurposed materials (aka garbage) such as chicken wire, cement, bathtubs, household appliances, fiberglass, etc, Greco built a miniature replica of Israel, specifically Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
Visitors were (literally) walked through the timeline of Jesus’ life from birth to death, or “cradle to the cross,” as Greco stated. Starting in Bethlehem, visitors walked past biblical landmarks such as Herod’s Palace, the manger, court of the Gentiles, the tower of Babel and the three crosses of Calvary.
“Court of the Gentiles.”
Greco closed Holy Land in 1984 for renovations but it was never reopened. When he passed away two years later, he left the park in the care of the Religious Sisters of Filippini, an order of nuns who continued to use the chapel but let the grounds fall into disrepair. Attempts were made to restore the property, including one by Boy Scouts who repaired the Hollywood style sign in 1997 and the replacement of the iconic cross in 2008. A larger but ultimately futile restoration effort was made in 2001 when inmates from a nearby prison were brought in to clear the overgrown brush, but the project proved too expensive and the park was abandoned once again.
On June 20th, 2013, the mayor of Waterbury and a car dealer nicknamed “Fritz,” natch, bought Holy Land for $350,000 and plan to revitalize the park. Sorry I just said “natch,” but, c’mon…a car dealer named Fritz? FRITZ. With all the failed renovation attempts of the past, I’m sure Waterbury residents aren’t getting their hopes up. Plus you know they’d all secretly prefer a Six Flags over a bible lesson.
A few before/afters of Holy Land, c/o flickr.com/people/roadtripmemories/ and then some junk about my adventures.
Holy Land circa 1960′s (above) and 2013 (below)
Entrance to the park circa 1960′s (above) and the entrance in 2013 (below)
Statue of Christ in the entrance in the 60′s (above) and the headless/handless statue in 2013 (below)
Postcard for Holy Land in the 60′s.
Holy Land sign in 2013.
I explored Holy Land only a week after the purchase, of which I was unaware, but there were no signs of change or ownership. To gain legal entrance to the park, it was suggested to request permission from the nuns who lived right outside the property, but upon arrival we found the convent empty and a for sale sign in the window.
The park was overgrown to the point where many previously visible monuments were completely obscured in the brush. Plenty of structures had been removed/smashed/washed away in storms, but you can see how dense the foliage is and how some things might not be visible until the winter when the leaves are gone.
One thing that’s difficult to get the idea of through photos is the scale of the structures. They’re SMALL. Like, teeny tiny, hobbit sized small. The manger (below) came up to just below my knee.
The manger (I think- at this point the buildings were all mishmash in the shrubbery.)
Newspaper reports about Holy Land claimed that exploring requests and trespassing had declined in the late 90’s but were briefly renewed after a rape/murder took place in the park in 2010. However, details of the crime revealed that the 16-year-old victim knew her attacker, which means it could have occurred anywhere and wasn’t necessarily contingent on the park’s safety or lack thereof. That information is probably omitted in most retellings of the story since any murder that happens in an abandoned place is destined to come lore. On a lighter note, Holy Land U.S.A. was the setting for the Flaming Lip’s music video Unconsciously Screamin’ in 1991 and was visited by Stephen Colbert for the Daily Show in 2002.
One of two gardens, either Garden of Eden or Garden of Gethsemane.
At one point, my exploring buddy asked what the second garden we passed might have been, and I found myself automatically replying, “probably the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus went with his disciples after the Last Supper before his crucifixion. He told his disciples to keep watch, then went and prayed he wouldn’t have to go through with being sacrificed, which was a pussy move, and then his lazy disciples kept falling asleep instead of watching over him and Judas came and betrayed him and he was arrested by the Romans and…” and then I had one of those moments where I was dumbfounded at how much mental space my brain is wasting by harboring the details of a Sunday school lesson when I can’t even remember to move my car for street cleaning so I don’t get another goddamn parking ticket. Then I had the terrible and fleeting sensation that I was going to spend eternity in hell for calling Jesus a pussy and then I got annoyed at myself for thinking that and then I just stood there having a lil’ existential crisis about the meaning of it all while my friend went and took a shit in the woods.
Jesus’ Tomb. This replica was set inside stone wall and was only about 1.5 x 3ft.
I can’t find adequate words to describe what it felt like to walk through the park ruins, having grown up believing in the message Greco was so determined to share. Part of me was embarrassed that I once fully believed in fables that claimed someone could survive inside the belly of a whale or that a man could walk on water, but part of me wished I still believed those things. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I took it upon myself to leave my small hometown and get an education, but I couldn’t help wonder what might have become of me had not done those things. That train of thought was quickly put to bed when I got home and facebooked my old church pals. They were all married and the majority of them had children. There were an abundance of photos of couples posing in front of vineyards, tables with immaculate place settings and those kinds of pictures where five people are standing in a row looking like the kind of indeterminate white people even other white people make fun of. I don’t mean to disparage that lifestyle, I’ll even confess to being partially jealous of their stability and happiness, but I prefer to spend my Sundays knockin’ about abandoned buildings and just generally being a godless heathen. Also, I’d like to state for the record that I always knew Santa Claus was nonsense.
Addendum: In less than an hour after I posted this, I got three messages from kids I grew up with, imploring me to remember that Jesus loves me and will forgive me. While I appreciate the (misdirected) concern and responded kindly, I assure you such sentiment is an exercise in futility.
More photos of Holy Land U.S.A can be seen on the Flickr set.
Disclaimer: If any information on this post is incorrect, if you have more info or would otherwise like to tell me something, feel free to contact me.