WATERBURY – After falling into decay, the giant cross that sits on top of Holy Land U.S.A. is once again illuminating the night sky, thanks to a grassroots effort spearheaded by Mayor Neil M. O’Leary and businessman Fred "Fritz" Blasius.
Some might call it miraculous that it took only seven months to conceive, implement, fund-raise and complete the restoration of a symbol that has been an important historic landmark for the city since the ’50s.
Beyond that, virtually every element of the massive project was donated – from the purchase of the land to the designing, constructing, transporting, installing, wiring, securing and finally lighting of the cross that can be seen from as far as five miles away.
A standing-room-only Mass of celebration was celebrated at Our Lady of Lourdes Church on Dec. 22, before an estimated 4,000 people spread out through streets and across the bridge near Sacred Heart High School for the countdown and lighting ceremony.
"That cross has always been the identifier for the city," said Mayor O’Leary on Jan. 15. "I can’t tell you how many people a day come up to me and say how grateful they are to see it lit."
The 16-ton cross that stands 52 feet tall atop a seven-foot-tall base was fabricated and donated by Joe Pisani, president of Pisani Steel Fabrication Inc. of Naugatuck.
It is six feet wide and three feet deep with an arm span of 26 feet, and is illuminated with 4,500 LED lights that will change color (controlled remotely) according to the liturgical calendar – green for ordinary time, purple for Advent and Lent, red for the feasts of the martyrs, white for Christmas and Easter. Green also will be used for St. Patrick’s Day.
"I always had an attraction, a connection with Holy Land," said Mr. Pisani, who still vividly remembers walking to Holy Land as a kid and picking blueberries with family members who lived on Pleasant Street "right under the cross."
"It was a great place at the time," he said, "very reverent … a peaceful, tranquil place … a place of refuge."
An illuminated cross had been the centerpiece of the 17.7-acre Holy Land theme park that Waterbury attorney John Greco started to build in the mid-’50s on Pine Hill. A devout Catholic, he envisioned replicating images of Bethlehem and Jerusalem on the site as a place for prayer and meditation.
At its peak in the ’60s and ’70s, Holy Land U.S.A. drew an estimated 40,000 visitors annually, many of whom traveled by busloads to the site.
The cross became not only a landmark for Waterbury but also part of its heritage, a childhood legacy embedded in the minds of its residents who could see it from "everywhere" in Waterbury. Motorists and truck drivers looked for the illuminated cross passing through what’s known locally as the "Mixmaster" interchange of -84 and Route 8. There even are stories of pilots who used the cross as a guiding light.
When the park began to fall into disrepair, Mr. Greco closed it in 1984 with plans to renovate the site. But prior to his death in 1986, he left the property to the sisters of the Religious Teachers Filippini, some of whom lived in a house on the site.
This is the fourth cross on the property. The first was lit with neon tubes that kept breaking, so in 1968, Mr. Greco commissioned a second cross lit with replaceable bulbs, but they required maintenance.
In 2008, the Filippini sisters contracted for a smaller, 50-foot stainless steel cross, which was dedicated by Archbishop Henry J. Mansell, now retired. It was illuminated with spotlights that local people said weren’t effective; and eventually the lights were vandalized and broken.
"When I ran for mayor in 2011, there was a lot of talk citywide about people being disappointed with the cross," said the mayor and former police chief. "When I’d visit people, especially the elderly, they’d say to me, ‘Can you do something about the cross?’"
So after his election in 2012, he said, he began to make inquiries; and soon after noticed that there was a for sale sign on the property.
The two private citizens went to Archbishop Mansell for his support. "We told him our intention was to build a new cross that would be bigger, better and brighter than anything out there; and to leave it always as Holy Land," he said. Three days later, they were at the Filippini sisters’ motherhouse in Morristown, N.J., negotiating for the property.
They formed a limited liability company called Holy Land Waterbury, U.S.A., and created a 15-member board of directors headed by Chuck Pagano, executive vice president of technology for ESPN.
According to Mr. Pagano, once word got out in June that the project was a go, fund-raisers were held and support began to pour in from all over, with the cause quickly netting $350,000 from 4,000 donors who gave anywhere from $1 to $100,000 to purchase the property from the Filippini sisters.
"They didn’t close on the property until October; and after that, it was a non-stop dash to get it up and in place before Christmas as a gift to Waterbury," said Mr. Pisani.
Finally, the cross, fabricated in three sections, was brought to the site on Dec. 19 to be welded. It stood with the support of special rigging.
"It was a very emotional," said Mr. Pisani. "It was a relief that we got it done, and it was also very humbling."
"When we got it on the pedestal, you couldn’t hear a pin drop. It was quite peaceful … something I’ll remember as long as I live," he said.
"The 1968 cross was named the Peace Cross," he continued. "This is also called the Peace Cross. But we named her in honor of Our Lady of Peace; and she is dedicated to her son, Christ Jesus, the Prince of Peace…and also to John Greco."
Mayor O’Leary was equally moved by the experience, and recalled that countless people had tears in their eyes during the Mass and lighting ceremony.
"The cross means a lot to everyone," he said. "It doesn’t matter what your background or religious denomination is."
"It brought everybody together," he said. "We have a variety of religious groups in the city, Catholic being the most prominent," he said, adding that the town has 17 Catholic churches. "But every religious group came forward and contributed. It unified the city."
Now that the cross is erected, Mr. Pagano said, the board is discussing the next phases, beginning with a plan to clear the overgrowth of trees and restore the site.
Already, Holy Land U.S.A. has 13,500 followers on Facebook, as well as a website (holylandwaterbury.com) that offers information about both the project and a fund-raising sale of $100 and $250 bricks. A Mass is being discussed for the spring.
"It’s been a great experience," Mr. Pagano said, recalling a conversation he’d had with a taxi driver in Sydney, Australia, about the Waterbury cross while on a business trip.
"It just shows you what vision, commitment and energy can do," he added. "But at the end of the day, it’s just about people trying to do something good, period."