Tuan Pham fights to keep 7-foot Jesus statue on St. Paul bluff

The city says Tuan Pham's Jesus must come down off the mount.
The city says Tuan Pham's Jesus must come down off the mount.

The St. Paul Zoning Board says a 7-foot-tall statue of Jesus must come down off a bluff in the backyard of a St. Paul home. The owner, Tuan Pham, on the other hand, hopes the city council will see the light.

"My neighbors, everyone said, 'Wow, you did wonderful, it's beautiful. 'We're very happy to see it and improve our neighborhood,'" he says.

The statue is part of Pham's "Prayer Garden." He maintains a "Freedom Garden" and a "Children's Garden" in his front yard, all filled with statues of various sizes, including one very large Lady Liberty. He welcomes anyone to pray and play around his homegrown homages.

He says he got the idea for the statue of Jesus, which is a replica of the 105-foot-tall Christ of Vung Tau statue in Vietnam, about two years ago.

"It's special because not any culture can make it," he says. "Besides religion, it's the artwork."

Pham says he had the statue carved in Vietnam from white crystal marble and shipped to the U.S. in pieces. Once it got here, he hired a crew assemble it and cement it to a stone base in his backyard -- strong enough, he believes, to last "a thousand years."

"I don't want to tell," he says of the project's total cost. "But it was a lot of money."

There's just one problem. He didn't check with the city first. Some anonymous Judas ratted him out and zoning inspectors descended to tell Pham his Jesus is out of compliance. According to the rules, any development has to be 40 feet back from the bluff drop-off in Pham's backyard. On one side, the statue sits only 18 feet from the edge.

Pham argues that there is nothing below the drop that would be harmed, and that his research shows no mudslides have occurred on his property.

Pham's statue enjoys a panoramic view of downtown St. Paul.
Pham's statue enjoys a panoramic view of downtown St. Paul.

City staff was not persuaded. They're recommending the statue be removed. Pham is worried if he tries, Jesus will crack, and has collected 45 signatures from his neighbors in support of leaving the statue. He has a public hearing at today's city council meeting to appeal the zoning board's decision.

"I still believe the city council -- they are very smart," he says. "They know how to help the people."

Pham -- who is no stranger to public fights -- has not decided what he'll do if his request is denied. He made headlines in 2006 after winning a huge defamation suit against a group who he says sunk his reputation and ruined his grocery business by calling him a Communist. At the time, he called his victory a gift to his grandchildren. He now says the same about the Jesus statue.

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