Disputed Jesus statue stays for now

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 30, 2011 - 8:13 AM

Despite opposition at City Hall, a St. Paul resident said he hasn't been officially told to remove the monument from its river-bluff perch.

Jesus shall remain on the mount for the season.

The St. Paul City Council in April voted for the removal of 7-foot marble statue of Jesus from a west side Mississippi River bluff with a panoramic view of the downtown, but he hasn't budged.

"I am here looking for democracy and freedom," said Tuan Pham, a Vietnamese immigrant and retired University Avenue grocery owner who erected the statue in his back yard.

Under instructions from his lawyer, Pham said he has been waiting for an official letter from the city. If and when he gets one, Pham said he will file a lawsuit.

Pham bought his bluff home in 2007 and planted a Lady Liberty statue out front. He added two sets of leaping dolphins, a Virgin Mary, a St. Joseph and tropical fish. The Jesus statue, however, has been the subject of the city's attention since November 2010 when the city received an anonymous complaint about it standing too close to the bluff.

Pham received a letter from the city telling him that the Jesus statue violated the city code that forbids development within 40 feet of the bluff that drops sharply off the back yard.

The Zoning Board denied his appeal as did the City Council, but Pham hasn't heard from the city since and he's not eager to move the statue, which sits on a reinforced 10-foot base of concrete and steel.

Council Member Dave Thune represents the ward in which Pham lives. Thune contacted the city's zoning department early last week, but did not hear back before the Thanksgiving holiday.

The city hasn't given up. "Oh, no, no," Thune said. "Really, it's a pretty important zoning issue as well as the bluff preservation."

Just as Pham isn't on a property rights crusade, Thune said he isn't out to chill free speech or religion. "We don't want to have statues of religious or political figures on the bluffs," he said.

Pham and his wife, Mai Vu, and their 10 children emigrated from Vietnam in 1980. They opened a grocery on University Avenue and lived above it for years.

This Jesus is a treasured replica of the Christ of Vung Tua, a 105-foot monument on Nhu Mount in Vietnam. Pham, a fifth-generation Catholic, worked on the early construction of that structure. He imported his marble replica in three pieces.

Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035 Twitter: @rochelleolson

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