There’s Disneyland and Disney World, Universal Studios, Six Flags, and even an evangelical Christian theme park called the Holy Land Experience.
But did you know America used to have a Catholic theme park?
In the early 1950s, attorney and Roman Catholic John Baptist Greco was inspired to create a Catholic theme park that would replicate ancient Jerusalem and Bethlehem, as well as other scenes from the Bible and the early Church. An associate would later sayof him and his motivations: “He was a very spiritual man. He 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.”
To accomplish this goal, he founded a volunteer organization called the Companions of Christ, and in 1955 – the same year Disneyland opened – construction began on a plot of land in Waterbury, Connecticut. The project didn’t have a lot of resources, leaving volunteers to build with things like cinder blocks, bathtubs, and whatever they could find in the local junkyard.
It opened to the public in 1957. Its centerpiece was a 56-ft illuminated cross on a hill that could be seen from a nearby highway, along with a sign that had the name of the park in big lettering: Holy Land U.S.A. In its heyday of the 1960s and ’70s, the park averaged 40,000 visitors/pilgrims at year.
Here’s a picture of the cross and sign, taken in the 1960s:
Unfortunately, the park wasn’t maintained very well and fell into disrepair. In 1984, Greco decided to close the park to improve and expand it, but he died in 1986 before the renovation was finished – and it hasn’t been fully renovated since.
One writer described the problem like this: “A struggle over the future of the deteriorating park pitted those who saw it as ugly kitsch against an odd coalition of folk-art preservationists and conservative religionists.”
Ownership of the park was first passed to a group of religious sisters, and there have been various attempts to renovate and reopen the park, including one led by the Knights of Columbus in 2000, but with no success. Most recently, in 2013, the mayor of Waterbury purchased the site from the religious sisters with vows to clean it up as a community project. In September of 2014, a mass was celebrated on the site to mark this new project. You can learn more about it on its official website.
Here’s a video of the site in its current condition:
The first part of the video is overlaid with the homily given at the September 2014 mass, with a speech given by the mayor at the end.
Here are some stills from the video (click to enlarge):