WATERBURY, Conn. — Despite the threat of rain, approximately 2,000 people gathered at Holy Land USA, a decades-old landmark atop the city’s mountain, on a Saturday evening for a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Leonard Blair of the Archdiocese of Hartford.
“God speaks on mountains,” said Father Jim Sullivan, the organizer of the event and pastor of the Church of the Assumption, 15 miles away, in Ansonia, Connecticut. “God reveals himself on mountains. You don’t have to read too far into the Bible to see that — Ararat, Zion, Beatitudes, Tabor, Nebo, Olivet, Herman. I believe that God can speak on this mountain in Waterbury, not only 6,000 miles away in the [biblical] Holy Land. I believe firmly that God will speak anew from this mountain.”
Father Sullivan organized the Aug. 11 event essentially for a twofold purpose.
First, to honor the life and legacy of Venerable Father Michael McGivney, a Waterbury native and the founder of the Knights of Columbus.
“From the top of the mountain, you can see where Father McGivney was born, where he worked in the spoon factory below Holy Land on South Main Street in his early teens, where he worshipped and where he went to school,” Father Sullivan noted, “and to the other side of the mountain where he was laid to rest for 92 years,” before his remains were transferred to St. Mary’s Church in New Haven.
Although there was no cross on the mountain in Father McGivney’s time, vocations “were soaring,” even in his family. Out of 13 children, of his six siblings who lived past infancy, two brothers also became priests for the then-Hartford Diocese.
Archbishop Blair observed that the Knights of Columbus and others are asking God for the grace of a miracle leading to his canonization.
“I’m hoping that by having this Mass, a lot of people will start praying more to Father McGivney so they can identify a miracle,” Margaret Ransom, great-grandniece of Father McGivney, told the Register during the event. Hearing about a miracle will surely “increase awareness” of Father McGivney and his legacy, she said.
Ups, Downs and More Ups
Father Sullivan’s second purpose for the Mass was a celebration of Holy Land USA itself. “Historically, it’s a very precious piece of property — 17 acres of land in the middle of the city with two major highways on both sides,” he said. “Holy Land is a unique site, for 60 years, and people in Waterbury have a love for this mountain and what it represents.”
Day or night, travelers using the busy roads see the cross marking Holy Land’s summit. The 57-feet-tall, 26-feet-wide cross is illuminated at night, with 45,000 interior lights.
Raised in December 2013, it replaced two others, including the 56-feet-high original cross when Holy Land USA opened in the late 1950s as the brainchild of John Baptist Greco, a Catholic Waterbury attorney who spent much time spreading the Gospel. In the next two decades, more than 40,000 people visited Holy Land yearly until it closed in 1984. Following years of disrepair, the landmark’s revival started in 2013, when the city’s mayor and a Waterbury businessman purchased the property to revitalize and save it for religious purposes. Volunteers cleared much overgrowth, and up went the new cross. Now, plans are underway to reopen the 18-acre theme-park tribute to the homeland of Jesus.
“This cross is an important reminder to everyone of the presence of God,” Archbishop Blair explained during his homily. “How important this cross is shining brightly on this mountain.” It reminds everyone “to create a place for God in their hearts.”
The cross reminds him of the Latin truism, he said: “O Crux, ave spes unica! Hail, O Cross, our only hope! ...That inspires us as we gather under these crosses [the landmark one and the one on the altar for Mass].”
Archbishop Blair reinforced this necessity when he told the Register of the significance of this towering, illuminated cross at Holy Land USA. “At night people can see the place and the importance of God in our lives. Without that, we cannot hope to find the true meaning and purpose of our lives.”
At one time, Waterbury was a powerhouse of vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
Father Sullivan said that St. Francis Xavier Church located at the base of Holy Land mountain has fostered the most vocations in the archdiocese. A block away, South Street proved to be a boon of vocations. That includes Father Sullivan’s uncle, the late Dominican Father John McMahon, who grew up on South View Street, next to South Street, and was a St. Francis Xavier parishioner. He became a great advocate for the Knights of Columbus.
“This parish did produce more vocations to the priesthood and sisterhood and religious life than any other parish in the area, and probably more than any place in the archdiocese in the ’40s and ’50s,” said Father Paul Pace, pastor of the 123-year-old parish for the last 39 years and counting. “The families on South Street — and the whole area — were a faithful group of families, no question,” producing “very many” vocations.
He added, “What led to all those vocations so many years ago was the family dynamics — wonderful families producing these men and women who would look forward to a religious life. It really starts with the families.”
The most recent vocation from the parish was Father Michael Casey. Ordained in 2013, he is currently the Hartford Archdiocese’s vocations director.
Father Casey sees a tie-in of the landmark cross at Holy Land to vocations.
“As vocation director, I believe young people are not afraid of the challenges,” he said. “If we present it authentically, the cross leads to the Resurrection. We often rob young people of their ability to carry the cross in imitation of Our Lord; we rob them of authentic Christianity.”
Anytime we present authentically the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ, presenting the beauty that God would die for us upon the cross, that challenges us, he said. The cross is attractive, he added, and Christianity is worth laying down our lives for. “That will inspire people in the ways they can put down their lives” for Christ and others, including in religious life.
“The Mass and event on Holy Land will hopefully inspire more young people to carry the cross for the salvation of the world,” Father Casey said. “The Lord tells us the most important thing we can do for vocations is to pray. The prayer of the Mass is the most perfect prayer.”
Father Pace said, “Plant the seed, and hopefully things will grow.”
Archbishop Blair told the Register that while the world is very different from in the days of booming vocations in Waterbury, that’s not to say God will not give grace so as to “again inspire many more vocations to the priesthood and religious life in the place that provided so many in the past.”
He cited the examples of Father McGivney and heroic Waterbury priest Father Thomas Conway, who died ministering to the men during and after the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in World War II. (He and Father McGivney came from the same parish.)
“Father McGivney was all about encouraging the laity to fulfill their rightful duties in the Church, and when he saw a young man or woman who seemed inclined to serve as a priest or religious, he was always ready to provide guidance and a word of recommendation to the bishop if asked,” Brian Caulfield, the vice postulator for Father McGivney’s cause for canonization, told the Register. He pointed out the Knights carry on that legacy through many vocations’ scholarships each year and a program whereby councils “adopt” a seminarian or postulant.
John Walshe, the great-grandnephew of Father McGivney, also weighed in on this count during the event. “The number of young kids is really inspiring,” he observed. “This will help vocations.”
Because this is “a critical time, in terms of faith, and the spiritual climate of the world has changed,” Father Sullivan hopes this event “will be an inspiration not only to this area but well beyond.”
“God has spoken and will continue to speak here,” he emphasized. “I truly believe this can become a place of pilgrimage and miracles can happen here. I think the hand of the Lord is leading it all.”
Rebecca Greco Calabrese, the niece of Holy Land USA founder John Greco and a member of the board of directors, explained that throughout this weekend’s Mass, she felt “very connected and had a sense of peace.”
“I think Father McGivney would be most pleased to see Holy Land USA revived,” added Caulfield of the Knights of Columbus. “He grew up in sight of the mountain, celebrated his first Mass a mile or two from it, and was buried initially in a family plot at the foot of the mountain. We are confident that he is watching over the effort of renewal.”
Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.