WATERBURY—More than 1000 people gathered in the rain on top of Holy Land USA as Archbishop Leonard Blair celebrated Mass to honor Venerable Father Michael McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus and native of Waterbury.
The faithful came from across the state for the Mountaintop Mass at the former religious theme park, known for its 60-foot illuminated cross, which can be seen for miles from the highway. The mountaintop offers a view of the places where Father McGivney was born, baptized, educated and buried for 92 years until his remains were moved to the Church of St. Mary in New Haven, where he began the Knights of Columbus.
Early in the afternoon, people began gathering on the mountaintop, many of them shuttled to the top in golf carts on the repaved roads. They sat under tents and umbrellas in the shadow of the large cross that looks out over the city. They prayed the rosary and listened to praise and worship music. Although rain fell throughout the day, it didn’t dampen their spirits.
Archbishop Blair concelebrated Mass with 13 priests and three deacons on a stage that had a large banner proclaiming, “Welcome to Holy Land USA,” while above them, swallows swooped through the air in joyful flight.
Looking out at hundreds of people on the hillside, huddled under colorful umbrellas, he said, “My brothers and sisters, what a powerful thing it is for us to be gathered on this holy mountain in Waterbury, just as Christ taught the people on the mountain in today’s Gospel.”
He urged them to bring the message of the Holy Land Mass to others and evangelize Catholics who no longer practice their faith or who walk away from it because of “the many hard sayings of Jesus that the Church proclaims in fidelity to the Gospel.”
“Our response cannot be smugness,” he said. “You and I need to go out to the peripheries, we need to go out into this vast world, and into Waterbury, which we see all around us from this mountaintop, and by our words and our good example, we need to inspire other people to faith. We need to inspire them to faith, hope and love.”
He said, “This cross that is lit up every night is a powerful spiritual reminder to everyone of the importance of God in a world where people are absolutely forgetful of God, sometimes not deliberately, but because they’re so consumed by the things of this world. How important it is for the cross to be shining brightly on this mountain.”
Archbishop Blair said that when he first arrived in Connecticut, he made a donation to Holy Land and was given a tile, like other donors, on the newly erected cross. For his inscription he chose, “Ave crux, spes unica,” which means “Hail to the cross, our only hope.”
The organizers of the Holy Land Mountaintop Mass believe the event will cause a revitalization of faith and increased devotion to the founder of the Knights of Columbus.
The event was conceived by Father James Sullivan, pastor of Church of the Assumption in Ansonia, in collaboration with the Knights and Holy Land USA, which owns the park.
“This was a significant religious event for the city and the state, in the spirit of the new evangelization,” said Father Sullivan. “It was a celebration of Holy Land and Father McGivney’s life and legacy.”
“The Holy Spirit was present today,” he said as he stood beneath the 60-foot illuminated cross and gazed out at the city below. “I believe something truly wonderful is going to come from this and that it will reignite the faith in many people.”
Father Sullivan, who like Father McGivney grew up on the banks of the Naugatuck River, said, “Being born in Waterbury, I can recall as a young boy when all the churches were filled. The spiritual climate of the world has diminished with many forces pulling us away from our devotion to God. Our prayer is that He be found again. By God’s grace, Holy Land will help to reignite that flame of love.”
Brian Caulfield, vice postulator for Father McGivney’s cause for sainthood and a member of the Knights, hopes the Mass will inspire increased devotion to the priest. “Waterbury is Father McGivney’s hometown, and people recognize him as a holy man who grew up in their midst,” he said. “The Knights wanted to bring people together to pray and raise his profile around Connecticut. I’m sure he has a special place in his heart for Connecticut Catholics. We ask people to pray to him in a time of need.”
Caulfield estimates that since the priest’s cause for sainthood began in 1997, there have been more than 1000 favors granted to individuals who prayed for Father McGivney’s intercession. (For more information or to become a member of the Father McGivney Guild, which is free, go to fathermcgivney.org)
The Mass was on the eve of Father McGivney’s birthday, August 12, 1852. He died of pneumonia at 38 on August 14, 1890.
Father Sullivan had the idea for the Holy Land Mountaintop Mass following the success of a Mass last year on the Feast of the Transfiguration, which he celebrated for 100 people on the top of High Rock in Naugatuck. When he approached Archbishop Blair, Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary and John Marrella, Supreme Advocate and General Counsel of the Knights of Columbus, he got an enthusiastic response and moved forward.
Marrella said, “From age to age God draws people to Himself. In Biblical times, as Father Sullivan noted, these encounters frequently happened at the top of a mountain. Because people have a deep hunger for God, and He has not stopped working in human history, it is perfectly appropriate to celebrate Mass at Holy Land, which is the highest point in the most Catholic city in Connecticut, and which is also the hometown of the founder of the Knights of Columbus.”
He said the Knights were privileged to participate in the Church’s mission of evangelization and “continue the work of Fr. McGivney, bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to the whole world.”
Over the past four months, members of the Knights of Columbus, community volunteers and area construction companies have been working free of charge to refurbish Holy Land for the event. The roads were repaved and the mountaintop was cleared of brush.
The park, which is on an 18-acre site, included biblical scenes from the life of Jesus and recreations of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, many of which remain on the hillside. Holy Land was developed by John Baptist Greco, a Waterbury attorney, who began a volunteer organization called Companions of Christ, whose purpose was to create and oversee the religious park that opened in 1955. During the 1960s and 1970s, an estimated 45,000 visitors came to Holy Land each year.
The park, however, fell into disrepair and closed in 1984. When John Greco died two years later, the property was given to the Religious Teachers Filippini. Over the years, various attempts to revive the park were unsuccessful although the cross was restored and later replaced in 2008 and dedicated during a Mass by Archbishop Henry Mansell.
In 2013, Mayor Neil O’Leary and Waterbury businessman Fred “Fritz” Blasius purchased the site from the Filippini Sisters. They eventually erected a larger cross on the hill and the park reopened on September 14, 2014.
For Mayor O’Leary, the Mountaintop Mass was a defining moment in the history of Holy Land USA.
“When you talk about community engagement, there is nothing that compares to the Holy Land project,” he said. “It has had that kind of impact on the city. Since 2013, nearly 1000 volunteers have gone up there to work, including our Catholic high school and grammar school kids, Boy Scouts, people who live in the neighborhood, church groups — there are too many to name.”
He said that all of Waterbury came together when the Holy Land USA foundation was raising funds to purchase and renovate the park, and ultimately put the cross back on the mountain.
“Even the Muslim community helped with the fundraising,” he said. “As diverse as we are, with people coming from all over the world and from all religions, Holy Land brought us together. To me, that is the most amazing story of Holy Land, that people from every walk of life and every religion and every background came together. It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.”
By Joe Pisani