WATERBURY — Hundreds of faithful came from across Connecticut to Holy Land and gathered in the cold spring rain to celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday and honor the life and legacy of Waterbury native Venerable Father Michael McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus.
Bishop Juan Miguel Betancourt concelebrated the Second Annual Mountaintop Mass with 11 priests beneath a banner that proclaimed, “Welcome to Holy Land USA.” Throughout the day buses and shuttles brought people up the mountain as the rain fell.
Bishop Betancourt told more than 1100 people huddled under tents and umbrellas in the shadow of the 56-foot cross: “In the name of Jesus our Savior, I want to thank you for being here. It is a glorious day according to grace but now a little bit cold and wet. Yet here we are, trying to love Jesus and take advantage of his love, celebrating Divine Mercy Sunday.”
He said the lives of the saints can help us when we have difficulty following Christ and that Venerable Michael McGivney is a model of holiness for our times.
“His strong faith in the risen Jesus was manifested in spending his life sharing his joy by taking care of his people, especially those who were going through difficulties or suffering, and by expressing interest in others while keeping an exemplary spiritual life through prayer and the celebration of the sacraments,” Bishop Betancourt said. “Giving himself to others was how Father Michael McGivney witnessed his faith in Jesus Christ. He is a great example of the Lord’s Divine Mercy as his life encourages us to be compassionate and merciful as well.”
He told the crowd spread out across the hillside: “One of the purposes of the Easter season, besides celebrating the glorious Resurrection of the Lord, is to encourage all people to return to the fundamentals of being a Christian.” Just like the newly baptized in the early Church, contemporary Catholics are encouraged to stand up for the faith, to withstand attacks on the faith, and to incorporate their faith in every aspect of their lives, he said.
The organizers of the Mountaintop Mass, which was cosponsored by Holy Land USA and the Knights of Columbus, believe the event will cause a revitalization of faith and increased devotion to Venerable Father McGivney, whose cause for sainthood is being considered by the Vatican.
Father James Sullivan, organizer of the event and rector of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Waterbury, said, “This is a significant religious event for the city and the state, in the spirit of the new evangelization.”
“A powerful, strong feeling keeps coming to me, a feeling of hope,” he said. “Today was a day of great enthusiasm. Father McGivney was born in Waterbury, and in many ways this is holy ground. People love this mountain, and I think many would love to see a miracle here and the beginning of new spiritual life.”
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.
Despite the cold and rain, people from all over — including 40 seminarians from the Legionnaires of Christ — made their personal pilgrimage to the mountaintop, walking or riding in golf carts to the place of prayer.
Sister Patricia McCarthy CND, who for 12 years was provincial superior of the U.S. Province of the Congregation of Notre Dame in Wilton, returned to her hometown, where she teaches algebra at Our Lady of Mount Carmel School.
“I grew up in Waterbury,” she said, “And when I was a kid, the original Holy Land was being built and we would come up here, so I am delighted that it is back…This will bring in people who might not walk through the doors of a church, and there is a hope that this is a place where there will be a renewal of faith in Waterbury and beyond.”
James Tottenham, who came to the Mass for the second year with his wife Terry, said, “It is such a powerful experience, and it gets us closer to where the world should be when 1000 or more people can come together to pray and have hope.”
Walter Finneran, a volunteer and member of the Knights Council 24, said it was the pinnacle of his spiritual life “to be able to pray and celebrate Mass on top of this beautiful mountain and honor Father McGivney.” Frank Monaco of Valley Council 23, said, “We all wish for something to happen in the future.” And many expressed the hope that the miracle Father McGivney needs for beatification might occur among those who come there to pray.
Lorraine Greski of Ansonia said, “The most touching part for me was seeing all the priests process to the altar during the rain. I thought about their sacrifice and prayed for more priests and more vocations. I know God in his mercy will answer that prayer because this is what we need.”
Mayor Neil O’Leary thanked the Knights of Columbus and the many volunteers who made the event possible, “We have unbelievable momentum, and I credit Father Jim Sullivan and the other priests for that. We are excited about everything that’s happening. Father Sullivan put together the Mass last year and this year, and the board is proud to have him involved and leading the continuing revival of Holy Land.”
During the 1960s and 70s, the park, which opened in 1955, attracted 45,000 visitors a year — they were tourists and pilgrims who went to pray, meditate and recall the events of Jesus’ life, from his birth to his crucifixion, by following a path that circled the hill and led to a depiction of Calvary.
After falling into disrepair, Holy Land closed in 1984. However, it is experiencing a revival. The roads have been repaved, the hilltop is landscaped, exhibits are being restored and a new gate was installed at the entrance. Over the past year, community volunteers, members of the Knights of Columbus, and area construction crews have worked free of charge to refurbish the site.
The park has been an inspiration to countless people, particularly motorists passing on the highway who see the cross that stands majestically on the hilltop, illuminating the night sky. Holy Land, which is set on an 18-acre site on Pine Hill, was created by John Baptist Greco, a Waterbury attorney. His group of volunteers, called the Companions of Christ, helped build and maintain the biblical scenes depicting the life of Jesus, along with recreations of Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
When John Greco died in 1986, the property was given to the Religious Teachers Filippini. Over the years, various attempts to revive the park were unsuccessful although the original cross was replaced and dedicated in 2008.
In 2013, Mayor O’Leary and Waterbury businessman Fred “Fritz” Blasius purchased the site from the Filippini Sisters in a private transaction. They eventually erected a larger cross on the hill, and the park reopened in September 2014.
Father Sullivan said Holy Land will be used for liturgies, Christian prayer services, concerts and other events. He believes it will be a place where people will come to pray, find peace and meditate on Christ’s life, which was the vision that inspired John Greco 70 years ago.
Chuck Pagano, Chairman of Holy Land USA, said, “This is such a wonderful day. Holy Land has always been a labor of love for the volunteers, the community and the board, and while the impatient executive in me from a past life wants it done faster, little by little it is taking shape.”
Board member Rebecca Calabrese conducted tours of Holy Land as a young girl for her great-uncle John Baptist Greco. On Sunday, as she looked out at the hundreds of people who were waiting under tents and umbrellas for Mass to begin, she said, “This is as I remember it as a child, with so many buses coming here to bring people to honor God.”
By the end of the day, the rain had stopped, the storm clouds had cleared, and the sun began to set on Holy Land. Father Sullivan surveyed the city below and as the sky grew dark, the lights of the 56-foot cross went on.
“I’m sitting on top of the mountain and looking out at a city of 100,000 people,” he said. “My prayer is that the people of this city and this state and nation find God again … and that this cross will be the beacon.”
(For further information about Holy Land USA, go to holylandwaterbury.org.)