Tuesday, November 12, 2002

From the NYTimes (LRR), a former top religious attraction in the Northeast is falling into serious disrepair and everyone's wondering what to do about it.

Under a lighted 56-foot cross, and past the beheaded camel, beer cans and weeds desecrate the forgotten Bethlehem Village.

Around a bend, the gray plaster Temple of Jerusalem, affectionately called "unhistorical and funky" by one local religious scholar, now more closely resembles a prop from a Japanese monster movie. At Calvary, vandals have snapped off the right arm of a die-cast Jesus dying on the cross.

Holy Land U.S.A., a 18-acre park of Catholic-oriented religious kitsch — much of it miniaturized and built with scrap machine parts — was once one of Connecticut's largest tourist attractions, a spiritual lodestone to more than 200,000 visitors a year from all over the East Coast. But after 44 years, Holy Land, closed since 1984 and now administered by nuns who live on the hilltop property, desperately needs a rescuer — preferably someone with a lot of money.

"It used to be beautiful," said Vinny Tata, a Waterbury engineer who drove up to the chained front gate on a recent Sunday with his wife and baby daughter, to show them the place he knew as a child. "Now it's kind of creepy." ....

The Rev. Jaime Lara, a Catholic priest and professor who is the chairman of the program in religion and the arts at Yale University Divinity School, said that despite an appearance that seems to have been inspired by "miniature golf settings and pious lawn sculpture," Holy Land follows in the line of the northern Italian sacri monti — sacred mountains — begun in the early 16th century as an alternative to the dangerous pilgrimages to the real Holy Land.

The Italian versions include miniature cities, chapels, indoor dioramas, and mannequins portraying the important episodes in the life of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and saints. Holy Land, built over years by Mr. Greco and a group of friends who called themselves Catholic Campaigners for Christ, is more of a Catholic Coney Island, Father Lara said.

.....Margaret Bodell, a New York City gallery owner who grew up in Stratford, Conn., said Holy Land should be appreciated as nonreligious artwork, too.

"It's basically a sculpture, and in our day and age these type of environments are fading," said Ms. Bodell, who self-published a 25-page book on the history and artistry of Holy Land. But even she admits that sometimes artistic license got the better of Holy Land's builders.

"When you have mannequins with ketchup on them to signify people being eaten by lions," she said, "it gets a little wacky."

What's your favorite kitschy religious landmark?

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