Resurrecting Holy Land

A cross stands in the center of Waterbury, Connecticut. It’s atop Pine Hill, wedged between I-84 and Route 8, and inside Holy Land USA, a shuttered Catholic theme park. Most Saturdays and Sundays, you can find Bill Fitzpatrick below the cross, clearing brush from the path between “Jerusalem” and “Bethlehem Village,” clusters of biblical replicas made of plywood and stainless steel. Chuck Pagano, the President of Holy Land’s Board of Directors, will glimpse the cross as he flies out of Bradley Airport to catch a Packers game in Green Bay. Though Mayor Neil O’Leary cannot see the cross from his corner office in Waterbury’s City Hall, a drawing of Holy Land’s original layout is displayed upon a cabinet. Katerina Valenti eyes the cross through a window in her biology classroom at Sacred Heart High School.

Constructed in 1956, Holy Land USA was New England’s first religious theme park. The attraction was founded by a wealthy Waterbury attorney, John Greco, and was composed of more than 125 religious mini-exhibits. Despite the park’s initial success, the property aged poorly and eventually fell into a state of disrepair. Replicas became remains and the area turned into a site of vandalism. In 2010, Holy Land’s aura changed from deserted to tragic. A local teenager, Chloe Ottman, was murdered on the grounds, shocking the city and forcing residents to address the future of the abandoned park.

While fundraising efforts following Ottman’s murder led O’Leary and a local car dealer to purchase the land for $350,000, Waterbury’s healing cannot be so easily quantified. The small city situated in Connecticut’s “manufacturing valley” received national media attention for a few weeks after the murder before newspapers lost interest. Nowadays, Ottman’s death is a hushed subject. Her name is spoken in quiet tones, followed with murmurs—“It’s really too bad.” The park reopened in 2014, but Holy Land’s period of abandonment remains a somber footnote in the property’s history. As one resident recalled, “The bad stuff happened up there and then no one went.”

A locked chain link gate guards the crumbling entrance of the property a few hundred yards from the cross. An attached poster board reads “NO TRESPASSING. Violators will be prosecuted,” in bold red lettering. The neighborhood seems to listen, opting to observe the cross from afar. On an October afternoon, there’s no sign of people besides two boys pushing a toddler on a tricycle down the road outside the gate. Fifty years ago, this scene looked quite different. Older Waterbury residents recall Sunday picnics at Holy Land and races to see who could pick the most blueberries from the bushes on the outskirts of the property. But for those without these memories, it’s hard to see beyond the cracked asphalt driveway and the conspicuous video surveillance.
Some of Holy Land’s advocates say that Ottman’s murder motivated them to take back the park from abandon. Others refuse to let the crime taint their memories of Holy Land. As Chuck Pagano explains, “I look at life myself, personally, like sailing a boat. You gotta jibe. You gotta tack. But you gotta keep your eye on the mark. And I think that’s what this group is focused on now: keeping our eye on the mark. But it was a dark episode.”

Can the loss of a sixteen-year-old’s life be reduced to a single dark moment in the history of a revered place? Or does it change the place forever? Should it? Holy Land USA is both the best of Waterbury and the worst: a symbol of its golden age and its decline, a temple and a tomb. This duality still permeates the park’s identity today, begging the question of whether sites of trauma should be redeemed and transformed—or preserved for what they have become.

Life

A 1950’s black-and-white photograph of John Greco hangs in the Holy Land chapel. He sits in a wooden chair with his left hand gripping his opposite wrist. His smile is cautious, as though he’s uncertain whether his portrait belongs next to the twentieth century pietà that looms to its right. Holy Land organizers have kept the portrait on display as a eulogy to the religious site’s founder. There’s much more to learn about Greco, however, from what’s outside— the remnant of his labor of love, Holy Land USA.

“When you were in his presence, you felt the spirit come through your core,” says Rebecca Calabrese, Greco’s great-niece. Born in Waterbury in 1895, Greco and his family returned to his parents’ hometown in Avellino, Italy when his father could not find work. He only later moved back to the States for his education at the Catholic University of Washington, D.C. Perpetually ill as an adolescent, Greco had to delay school indefinitely. After finally recovering, he earned a full scholarship to attend Yale Law School and stayed in Connecticut for the rest of his life. His descendants say that he never fully shook his internal desire to become a priest. He founded an Italian ethnicity group and devoted his free time to tutoring recent Italian immigrants (“all pro-bono” his family still boasts). He later started Catholic Campaigners for Christ, where he developed the idea to construct a Catholic theme park. By 1956, the group had erected a thirty-two-foot neon crucifix on Pine Hill, and Holy Land USA became a reality.

Sites of Christian tourism were not uncommon in the 1950’s, and they continue to thrive in the South today. Another “Holy Land USA” opened in the 1960’s in Del Rio, Texas. An additional park in Orlando, Florida called “The Holy Land Experience” lets visitors be baptized in a chlorinated pool by a John the Baptist impersonator. “Ark Encounter,” a $100 million recreation of Noah’s ark, opened in Kentucky in July 2016. The ark replica is 510 feet long and houses a zoo. These parks differ widely in offerings, but their popularity and high budgets reveal the passion with which religious fundamentalists have sought to create religious spaces outside the church to inspire the faithful and, perhaps, attract new members to the flock.

In Waterbury, Holy Land USA succeeded at becoming a community place that everyone knew, regardless of religion. The park was composed of religious replicas, exhibits, and spaces for reflection. Park visitors summited the hill and passed through two archways labeled “Holy Land” and “Jerusalem.” From this point, they could observe miniature replicas of notable places from the Bible, including Herod’s Palace and an inn with a “No Vacancy” sign. The inn was large, like a children’s playhouse, with scrappy plastic windowing and a bold red door frame. Figurines of the nativity scene sat in a cave-like structure, blocked off by black metal bars. A nearby plaque on the ground read “Every Day Is Christmas.” Visitors could take pictures at the “Dignity of Marriage” exhibit, which highlighted biblical evidence for the sanctity of matrimony. The narrative pathway of Jesus’ life wrapped around Pine Hill and culminated at the glowing cross.

A donation bucket sat at the exit of the park for fifty-cent parking contributions, but most revenue came from the Holy Land collections that local churches hosted about six times each year. With an average of forty thousand visitors annually, Holy Land didn’t have much trouble staying busy or financially afloat. Hordes of vehicles, an average of five hundred cars and thirty buses each weekend, navigated the steep climb up Pine Hill to unload tourists at the park. For many, Holy Land was the humble destination of countless personal pilgrimages.
Chuck Pagano grew up in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Waterbury next to Saint Patrick’s Church. Most Decembers, his parents would take him to the Saint Patrick’s nativity scene before bringing him up to Holy Land, which he says always struck him as “a nativity scene on steroids.” Linda Barone, another lifelong Waterbury resident, remembers from childhood the realism of the Holy Land exhibits. She would follow her family around the park, careful not to venture too close to the crypt replicas. After reaching the cross, her family would convene again and return home to watch Jesus Christ Superstar on Sunday nights.

Visiting the park became as ritualistic as church itself to many Waterbury residents. Pagano attributes Holy Land’s success to the universality of its message: peace, reflection, and acceptance. “I think Holy Land was a magnet.” In his opinion, regardless of people’s backgrounds, Waterbury residents considered the park a place of reflection. With its cross glowing in the sky from the highest point in the city, Holy Land was impossible to ignore, Pagano says, “And they had good blueberries up there too.”

John Greco died in 1986, at the age of ninety-one, and designated in his will that Holy Land be left to an order of nuns, the Religious Teachers of Filippini. Several nuns moved onto the property, but they weren’t able to handle the upkeep. Fearing liability from accidental injury, the religious order officially closed the park soon after inheriting it. Holy Land remained sealed for three decades.
Keeping 17.7 acres of land sealed, of course, is a difficult task, and the nuns attempted it half-heartedly. In 1997, the nuns granted a troop of Boy Scouts permission to renovate the Hollywood-style Holy Land USA sign that rests on Pine Hill above I-84. A decade later, in 2007, a coalition of local Catholic volunteers scraped together enough money to replace the crumbling crucifix with a fifty-foot, stainless steel cross. The new cross was not internally lit, making it harder to see at a distance. As the lights dimmed on Holy Land, the park sank further into disrepair.

Death

RoadsideAmerica.com suggests skipping a visit to Holy Land USA if you don’t have an up-to-date tetanus shot. Grassy clumps peek through fissures in the sidewalk outside the chapel. Discarded plywood replicas of toy church steeples, held together by rusty nails, are strewn around the park’s entrance. The ceramic torso of an animal, maybe a horse or a camel, rests on the site’s sloping terrain. An aged crucifix, which has since been removed from the property, used to lay horizontally, marked with graffiti reading “God is dead.”
Chloe Ottman, like many of her peers, was intrigued by Holy Land’s seedy mystery. The abandoned park did not scare her. Ottman’s father, Derek, told me that his daughter had a passion for the underdog and a never-ceasing urge to cheer people up. Friends of Chloe’s tenderly recall the lengths to which she would go to make them smile, trying goofy faces and sometimes even using her hands to force the corners of her classmates’ mouths upward. Curiosity spurred her to leave her house by 7:30 a.m. some weekends to explore Waterbury, the city where she grew up. She would later describe these daylong outings with her friends in lengthy Facebook posts, calling them “Epic Adventures.”

On July 15, 2010, Ottman, who was sixteen at the time, agreed to join a friend of her boyfriend, whom she had met at several parties, Francisco Cruz, Jr., at Holy Land as part of an “Epic Adventure” he planned for her. Ottman and Cruz sat at the base of the crucifix, chatting and sipping Joose, a caffeinated malt drink. Soon after they sat down, Cruz made sexual advances toward Ottman, which she rebuffed. Cruz attempted to grope Ottman. She elbowed him in the face, knocking his glasses to the ground. Cruz became enraged. He strangled Ottman and raped her. Unsure if she was still alive, Cruz stabbed her several times and left her body in a nearby wooded area.

The next day, Ottman’s family reported her missing; Cruz confessed to the crime two days later. He initially pled guilty but later withdrew his plea. Facing the possibility of going to trial, Chloe’s mother wanted to push for the death penalty but her father feared the lengthy trial that it would entail. Cruz finally agreed to plea guilty again if the rape charge was dropped. Ottman’s father reluctantly agreed, admitting that it was “fucked up.” Cruz is now serving fifty-five years in state prison.

Following the murder, the Religious Teachers of Filippini vacated the property and moved to Morristown, New Jersey. As Derek Ottman remembers, the organization was unresponsive to his inquiries about Holy Land’s future. What were their plans for the property? What were they going to do about the blood-stained concrete? Could they build a fence to keep future trespassers out? The nuns said they would have to confer with the heads of the religious order in Rome. They never got back to him. (The provincial supervisor of Holy Land at that time of his attempts has since died, according to Sister Ascenza of the order, who spoke to me over the phone from Morristown.)z

Although Derek Ottman does not blame the religious order for his daughter’s murder, he admits that some resentment lingered for a while. Pagano, on the other hand, adamantly insists that the crime was not a product of Holy Land itself or its managers. He attributes the death to circumstance. He told me, “Holy Land happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Resurrection

Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary’s office sits on the second floor of City Hall. A framed vintage advertisement that reads “Waterbury Renaissance,” hangs on the wall in the waiting room. A copy of Emery Roth’s Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry sits on the coffee table. (Waterbury’s nickname is “The Brass City.”) Through the Mayor’s window, just across the road on Grand Street, you can see the Waterbury Courthouse, where Francisco Cruz was convicted of murder in 2011.

One afternoon in August of 2013, Mayor O’Leary ventured to Holy Land. The temperature had just reached the high nineties. Scanning the Waterbury skyline, thinking about the town’s past and future, he decided to call Fritz Blasius, a wealthy Catholic friend who owns a car dealership. As O’Leary recalls, “I called him up and said, ‘What are you doing right now?’ And he said, ‘I just came off the golf course.’ And I said, ‘Come up to Holy Land.’”

O’Leary says that the idea for Holy Land’s resurrection didn’t come as an epiphany, but rather a gradual realization. When he had campaigned for mayor earlier in 2011, he made a point to visit Waterbury’s retirement homes. Across the board, seniors’ biggest request was to illuminate the cross once more. Once elected, he called the realtor of the Holy Land property and learned that the nuns, who still owned it, were asking for $750,000 for the 17.7 acres (city records indicate the property is worth roughly $1.24 million). Knowing that he could never fundraise this sum, the new mayor let the idea go. Three years later, however, O’Leary and Blasius decided to jointly purchase Holy Land using money that they would fundraise on their own.

Holy Land’s restoration (and Mayor O’Leary’s leadership of the movement) has not received any significant opposition. Still, an elected official’s advocacy for a religious site intuitively raises some red flags. Discussing Holy Land’s recent history in his office, Mayor O’Leary cuts himself off mid-sentence. “I’ve got to make sure you understand only one thing so far: this has nothing to do with the city of Waterbury. I’m the mayor, but this was not done with me being a representative of the city, because that would be a big problem with separation of church and state.” I nod. He pauses, leans heavily into his chair, and dives back into the story.

After some negotiating, O’Leary and Blasius convinced the nuns to listen to their pitch. The day of their meeting, the men awoke early and drove to Morristown, New Jersey. The meeting began sharply at 10 a.m. There was no small talk—O’Leary sat with a cup of coffee in one hand and a Danish in the other, he says, waiting for the women to speak.

In the meeting, O’Leary and Blasius explained their motivation for buying the property, promising that they would never change it into a hotel or let the land be mined. By the end of the day, the nuns agreed to sell the listing for $350,000. As part of the deal, the land deed required that the property always remain Holy Land.

Three years later, at Holy Land’s second annual banquet at La Bella Vista Banquet Hall, Jennifer Carroll, a senior at Holy Cross Catholic High School, concludes her speech. “I realize that God does not just let bad things happen in our world. He gave us free will, which makes any outcome possible,” she projects slowly into the microphone. She and Katerina Valenti are the 2016 winners of Holy Land’s high school essay competition, for which students write personal statements about what Holy Land means to them. The young women stand by the podium as Rebecca Calabrese awards them one thousand dollars each to help fund their college educations.

Near the center of the ballroom, Joe Pisani sits with ten talkative family members and friends at a table marked “Pisani Steel.” To this crowd, his name alone is enough to stir approving murmurs. In 2013, soon after the purchase of Holy Land, Pisani agreed to construct a new lighted steel cross, entirely free of charge. His company was determined to build a crucifix larger than any of its predecessors. The project required roughly $300,000 worth of material.

On Friday, December 20, 2013, a crane erected the cross on Pine Hill, where it now sits on a hundred square foot base. The cross was illuminated for the first time in years, just in time for Christmas. Ten thousand Waterbury residents, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, came to watch the lighting ceremony. Even Waterbury’s Albanian Muslim community was in attendance. Some Waterbury residents say that traffic came to a halt on I-84 that day; regardless of their religious affiliation, people were leaning out their windows to try to catch a better look. Holy Land—they could finally see—was not lost.

Derek Ottman was not included in planning for the cross-raising ceremony and I wasn’t able to get in touch with Chloe’s mother for this piece. (The two are now divorced.) Mayor O’Leary initially told me that Ottman’s parents were in attendance, but he later retracted this claim, saying that he only heard of their presence second-hand through a police officer. The Mayor acknowledges the role of Ottman’s death in the restoration process. “I think that it inspired a lot of people to step forward,” he says. She seems to serve as an unspoken martyr for the movement. Neither of the two Holy Land writing competition winners mention her in their essays, and her name goes entirely unspoken at the annual banquet.

After the cross began to shine again in 2013, the restoration movement continued to pick up steam. They’ve received donations from more than 4,500 individuals in the past two years. At this year’s banquet, they’ve set a goal of raising eighty thousand dollars to cover the material cost of constructing a new Holy Land sign. Mayor O’Leary grabs the microphone and calls on the attendees to make monetary pledges. They auction off the letters from the old sign for five thousand dollars each. (O’Leary revealed before the banquet that he pre-sold three of the letters.) After the letters are auctioned, people raise their hands to pledge smaller amounts. O’Leary publically thanks each individual by name, congratulating several donors on their recent retirements or upcoming marriages.

“Lot of Irish names here tonight!” O’Leary remarks. One of the men at the Pisani table promptly raises his hand to place a bid. O’Leary squints before recognizing his friend from across the room. “I knew if I challenged these Italian guys they’d step it up.”

Between dinner courses, two priests in clerical collars examine tickets to a Yankees/Red Sox game at the silent auction. A group of Sacred Hearth High School students huddle around a table selling limited-edition Holy Land Timex watches. A Waterbury-based cover band takes the stage. Mickey, the group’s bassist, leans into the microphone. “We love Holy Land. We actually do.”
The absence of Chloe Ottman’s parents goes unmentioned. The two have maintained a low-profile since their tragedy. Derek Ottman made a GoFundMe page last year, hoping to raise $25,000 to return to school to become a writer (he has raised $678 as of this writing). On his fundraising page, he states that he’s on a mission from God, writing that he’s trying to shake his former life plans: “I’ve given up the stifling but ‘sure thing’ path my risk-averse-father-of-a-murdered-teenager brain wants.” Before Chloe’s death, a leaky roof damaged the family’s house, taking down an entire wall in her room. Derek wasn’t able to fix it before she died. More than five years later, the house repairs are still incomplete. “The weight of unfinished business is part of the brain feeling sorry for itself,” he explains. Derek writes that after trauma, he initially found messiness to be comforting. Five years later though, he knows it’s time to move forward, for himself and for Chloe, who he believes would want for people to relate to each other even when circumstances are difficult. He’s not focusing on Holy Land as a path forward anymore.

Long after dark, the silent auction winners are announced and the banquet’s attendees slowly trickle out of La Bella Vista. Mickey packs up his bass and the Holy Land vision boards are taken down from the entrance. The parking lot is illuminated as a hundred cars turn on their headlights and migrate toward the venue’s winding exit. Volunteers will be on-site at Holy Land by 11am tomorrow to continue restoration work, but until then, the cross stands alone on Pine Hill, hovering above the old manufacturing town.

Far below the cross, Chloe Monique Ottman’s grave reads, “We love you… forever.” Six years following her death though, her memory remains more prevalent in some people’s minds than others’. Holy Land has risen from tragedy, but the role of Ottman’s murder in the process of restoration continues to be dubious. Maybe forgetting violence in order to overcome it is productive, a way of honoring her. On the other hand, the potential to take advantage of trauma in order to motivate the redemption of a space is ethically challenging. The Bible assures followers that challenges can be overcome; Isaiah promises redemptive glory for the followers of the Lord: “Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction within your borders; you shall call your walls Salvation, and your gates Praise” (Isaiah 60:18). But the role of memory is ambiguous. Maybe we serve ourselves best by moving on, but what do we lose in disremembering trauma? If you turn your head as you leave Waterbury on I-84, you can catch a glimpse of the glowing cross one last time, its LED lighting glowing on the horizon.

2 thoughts on “Resurrecting Holy Land”

  1. A fine piece of writing. The author has successfully captured the feeling of a small town’s conflicts over this larger-than-life thing, both symbol and physical presence.
    I like the way the writer creates atmosphere, puts the reader in the scene, seeing the characters, the conflicts that are cooking away beneath the surfaces.

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