Holy Land Cross Installed Above City

by Christopher O'Brien
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A crane operated by Industrial Riggers hoists the cross onto rocky Pine Hill Friday afternoon. View from East Mountain. | Photo: Leslie Wolfgang

 

By Chris O’Brien | The Wolcott Whisper

WATERBURY  –  Steelworkers and welders worked past sunset to ready the unveiling of a 16 ton Christmas gift to the Brass City Friday evening. The landmark Holy Land cross will be formally lit on Sunday evening at 6 pm, although thousands of area residents got a sneak preview as builders briefly tested the LED lights on the cross.

Welders from Pisani Steel work weld a supporting frame onto the cross late Friday

Welders from Pisani Steel work weld a supporting frame onto the cross late Friday

The cross – 16 tons with 5,000 LED’s and made entirely through donated time and money – was welded together on Thursday and hoisted onto an 8 foot thick cement base Friday afternoon. Pisani Steel of Naugatuck donated the steel and welding for the project, estimated at $300,000. This is the fourth cross to stand at the site originally built by John Greco, an attorney who’s dream was to transform Pine Hill into a diorama of the real Bethlehem and Jerusalem to embody the life of Jesus Christ from 2,000 years ago. Hundreds of buildings dotted the hill, made largely from donated and recycled steel and cardboard. Chicken wire, used heaters, cement and former appliances from friends contributed to other areas of the site. Statues from a Worlds Fair, as well as one blessed by the Pope were installed at the site. Despite the humble beginnings and dream of one man, HolyLand became a popular attraction for over 40,000 pilgrims every year. A devout Catholic, Greco enlisted his family in building the religious attraction as an act of devotion. A sign placed on the site read:

“A group of dedicated men present a pictorial story of the life of Christ from the cradle to the Cross—it is our prayerful wish that the project will provide a pleasant way to increase your knowledge of God’s Own Book and bring you closer to Him.”

Anthony Wallings (red hat), a welder with Pisani drills a hole into the cement base. Looking on are Bill Pizzuto and Joe Pisani. Workers remained at their posts after sunset Friday to complete the job.

Welder Andrew Mullings (red hat), drills a hole into the cement base. Looking on are Bill Pizzuto (blue jacket) and Joe Pisani (far right). Workers remained at their posts well after sunset Friday to complete the job.

For the past 30 years, however, the site has fallen to decay and neglect. Greco himself passed away in 1986 and busses stopped arriving a few years earlier. No organization kept up the work at the site that Greco maintained with the help of close family relatives and friends. Ayers Street resident Bill Fitzpatrick says that most of the degradation of the site is the result of weather and age, not vandals as is commonly believed. The neighborhood – one of many in Waterbury with strong religious ties – is home to several newer Pentecostal churches and almost half a dozen Catholic churches with long histories. There has been very little litter found on the site in recent years, although some residents have visited the site in recent years despite prominently placed “No Trespassing” signs. “The buildings were made of cardboard and light material,” says Fitzpatrick. “Remember those years we’ve had two feet of snow? Well the weight of that snow simply crushed those structures over time.”Volunteers believe that much of park has buildings that simply need to be restored. A tall statue of the Virgin Mary still sits on a path on the hill. A giant Holy Land sign was cleared of brush several years ago for a Boy Scout Eagle project. It has been cleared again by a tree company that volunteered its services. A maintainance shed is in good condition, and Mayor O’Leary says that the chapel just inside the gates is in excellent condition.On Friday evening, media and descendants of John Greco visited the cross to view the finishing touches being made. Among them were Rebecca Greco who recalls being put to work by her uncle in building Holy Land.

Joe Pisani glances up at the cross Friday night

Joe Pisani glances up at the cross Friday night after worker finished its placement.

After darkness fell, Joe Pisani, owner of Pisani Steel, finally stepped off the cement base. He walked a few steps down the muddy path and turned around. His hardhat brim allowed a full view. The darkened cross of sturdy, hard steel rose high above the rocky hilltop for all to see. In silence, he stared, humbled by emotion. To those below, it was only visible from the dull spotlights of a television station. To many, this landmark has been more than just a symbol of Christianity. Local Albanian mosques have also contributed generously to the restoration effort. It has been a beacon of hope and faith. It has been a symbol for the Brass City, and a source of strength for motorists on its the intersecting highways. A welcoming sign for travellers coming home. Thousands passing below on their way to work every day might make a sign of the cross and say a brief prayer as they pass by. In the evening, they say “thank you” on their way home again. In either direction, a symbol of peace and of hope beckons. For those who had never seen the cross before, it may draw curiosity – as it has for decades. An internet search yields articles from around the country, ranging from the New York Times to Florida, and sometimes beyond. Humorous but respectful clips from the Daily Show and others have proven a wider interest that faith yields from a single community here to all of humanity.

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Mayor Neil O’Leary marvels at the site of the new cross Friday night.

During the test lighting, traffic slowed on I-84 with drivers leaning out their windows for a glimpse. Holy Land Waterbury posted a notice on their Facebook page advising drivers not to stop on the highway while taking pictures of the cross. Mayor O’Leary’s phone rang non stop Friday from residents asking what was going on as the lighting test started, then stopped. “Its red, its purple, its green, now its out.” Reporters across the state gathered and will gather again on Sunday. The Courant ran a historical article. Another blogger penned her thoughts.In this Christmas season, we are truly blessed. And in this season, we are blessed to live in a community that is united in our spirit for one another. While God is unseen in today’s world, many of his works still are. In a community with many faiths – Catholic, Pentecostal, Baptist, Jewish, Muslim, Jehovah’s and others- we are united by our goodwill, and strength as a community. As tough as things have been in this working class city, there is always hope, and there is opportunity to make this a better place.When the old cross came down on Halloween this year, rumors circulated. Some even thought thieves took the 52 foot steel cross. The symbol’s absence resulted in a  collective despair, even if the most recent dimly lit cross wasn’t as bright or as large as it could have been. A small group of local citizens have proven that light can be restored, however. Those volunteers comprising the non-profit group Holy Land Waterbury have pledged that their mission isn’t yet complete. Area residents are invited to assist them in their efforts. Commemorative Christmas ornaments are for sale, as are engraved bricks.

South Elm Street certainly isn’t the only place you can view it. Stand almost anywhere downtown… or in Town Plot, East Mountain, Long Hill, at the Mall, Home Depot, and places in between. A mass will be held at Our Lady of Lourdes Church on South Main Street at 4:30 pm. The official lighting will take place at 6:00 pm on South Elm Street, behind the church. Parking is available at the St. Mary’s Hospital parking garage, Holiday Inn Express parking lot, Maloney School, and other area lots on Grand Street.

The community is invited to a gathering of refreshments afterwards at Maloney School.

What a gift a community can receive this Christmas.

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References:

2008: “Holy Land USA, a Religious Vision in Ruins” – excellent insights into Greco’s vision and life

2001 article – NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/11/04/nyregion/the-view-from-waterbury-a-hilltop-landmark-undergoes-a-revival.html

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