SOUTH PORTLAND — The pine tree planted to hide what some call the googly-eyed Jesus may be dying.

The long, green needles of the Austrian pine, which obscures a controversial mural of Jesus Christ on the bell tower of Holy Cross Catholic Church on Cottage Road, have mysteriously turned brown in recent weeks.

But people familiar with the 25-foot-tall tree say it has looked dead in the past and been brought back to life, in keeping with the subject of the mural, which depicts the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Christ. At the base of the 36-year-old mural, largely hidden by the tree, is a giant face of Jesus with his eyes rolled back that has drawn public criticism.

The man responsible for the tree’s last resurrection, Broadway Gardens owner Phil Roberts, said he noticed the tree’s poor condition last week and is working with church leaders to figure out a course of action.

Photos from March 31, top, and May 23, bottom, show that the green needles of the Austrian pine that obscures the mural of Jesus Christ on Holy Cross Catholic Church in South Portland turned brown in less than eight weeks.

Photos from March 31, top, and May 23, bottom, show that the green needles of the Austrian pine that obscures the mural of Jesus Christ on Holy Cross Catholic Church in South Portland turned brown in less than eight weeks. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer (top) Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer (bottom)

“I think pollution is doing a number on it,” Roberts said Tuesday. “It’s got something going on.”

Roberts, who is a church member, said the tree also appeared to be dead a couple of years ago, but it rebounded after he applied a fertilizer and insecticide. Now, road salt and other pollution may be taking a toll once again.

“This time it may be gone,” Roberts said. “It may have to come out.”

Monsignor Michael Henchal, who oversees the parish that includes Holy Cross, didn’t respond to calls about the tree’s current condition.

On April 17, the Maine Sunday Telegram published a story about the tree and its strategic placement in front of the mural. At that time, the needles on the tree were green. In that story, Henchal said parishioners didn’t talk much about the mural, though the hidden Jesus is something of a legend among children who attend the parochial school next door.

"For many it was not a pleasant sight," said Bob Morency, a longtime parishioner at Holy Cross Catholic Church in South Portland.

“For many it was not a pleasant sight,” said Bob Morency, a longtime parishioner at Holy Cross Catholic Church in South Portland. 2001 Press Herald file photo/John Ewing 2001 Maine Sunday Telegram file photo/ John Ewing

At the high-traffic intersection of Broadway and Cottage Road, the enamel-on-steel mural was installed in 1980 to replace a deteriorating tile facade on the church, which was built in 1950. Titled “Spirit of the Matter: A Christian Triptych,” the mural was designed by Damariscotta artist John Janii Laberge at the direction of a church committee.

In the April story, Laberge admitted that he has often thought of cutting the tree down with a chainsaw to expose his artwork. On Monday, Laberge said he had noticed the tree’s failing condition last week when he was dog-sitting for a friend in South Portland, but he was quick to deflect any suspicion that he is responsible.

“I didn’t poison it,” Laberge volunteered. “It may not be dead. I’ve seen it that way before and it came back. It’s probably just going through its seasonal changes.”

The response to the mural has been mixed from the start, especially to the whites of the eyes, which stare woefully toward heaven in a pose suggesting medieval religious art. While some say it’s an apt representation of pain and suffering, others say it’s creepy or scary. Laberge says he delivered on the church committee’s request to depict a “powerful, working-class Christ.”

“I wanted a strong, drive-by presence,” Laberge said. “I made something bold and big that tells something about the crucifixion and what came after. I warned them that depictions of Christ are a touchy thing.”

When Laberge drives past the mural today, he questions the negative reaction.

“It’s not that bad,” Laberge said. “A person who died on the cross is not going to look pretty.”

The pine tree hides the lowest part of the controversial mural depicting a suffering Jesus at Holy Cross Catholic Church in South Portland.

The pine tree hides the lowest part of the controversial mural depicting a suffering Jesus at Holy Cross Catholic Church in South Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The mural became the subject of community controversy in 2001, when church officials considered making changes to the artwork as part of building renovations. The renovations ran over budget, however, so the idea of altering the mural was dropped, church members said. Soon after, someone suggested planting a tree in front of the mural as a way to take care of the problem.

The plan seemed to be working until the tree started showing signs of stress in recent years. Whether it can be brought back from the brink a second time is unclear.

“While it’s possible for a tree of that type to lose all of its needles and come back, it’s unlikely,” said John Bott, spokesman for the Maine Forest Service.

Bott said it would be impossible for a professional forester to provide any further assessment without examining the tree in person.

Roberts, from Broadway Gardens, remains hopeful, although he questions the public interest in both the mural and the tree. He said he plans to consult with a professional arborist and meet with Monsignor Henchal before he does anything more to the tree.

“It’s just a work in progress,” Roberts said. “I can probably resurrect it again.”