SOUTH PORTLAND — For a second time, the pine tree planted to hide a controversial mural of Jesus Christ appears to have been brought back to life.

The Austrian pine, which obscures what some call the googly-eyed Jesus on Holy Cross Catholic Church, has sprouted long, green needles where brown ones were just a few weeks ago.

The tree appeared to be pretty much dead in late May, possibly for the second time since it was planted a few feet from Cottage Road, near the busy Broadway intersection.

“It does seem to have recovered,” said Monsignor Michael Henchal, who oversees the parish that includes Holy Cross.

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, now largely hidden by the tree, is a giant face of Jesus with his eyes rolled back.

The man credited with the tree’s last resurrection, Broadway Gardens owner Phil Roberts, might be responsible for its latest renaissance.


“He told me he was going to do something to treat it,” Henchal said, adding that he had noted the tree’s recent improvement but that it wasn’t a priority for the parish. Henchal also doubted that divine intervention might be involved.

Roberts, who is a church member, didn’t respond to a call for comment Monday. In a May 25 story about the tree, Roberts said it also appeared to be dead a couple of years ago, but it rebounded after he applied a fertilizer and insecticide. He blamed road salt and other pollution for the tree’s apparent decline and said he could “probably resurrect it again.”

In mid-April, 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.

The enamel-on-steel mural was installed in 1980 to replace a deteriorating tile facade on the tower of the church. 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.

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.”

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. 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 thereafter, someone suggested planting a tree in front of the mural as a way to take care of the problem.

For now, the problem remains hidden.


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