SWIEBODZIN, Poland – A gigantic statue of Jesus that Poles claim is the world's largest rose majestically above a small town on Saturday, as the grandiose dream of a local priest finally came to pass.
The white statue with outstretched arms and golden crown rising above the western Polish plains in Swiebodzin provides competition to Rio de Janiero's iconic Christ the Redeemer.
The mayor of the western Polish town, Dariusz Bekisz, claims it is now the world's tallest.
Rev. Sylwester Zawadzki, the 78-year-old priest who created the statue said it rises 108 feet, or 33 meters — one meter for every year that Jesus lived. Other members of the construction team, however, gave differing figures. One said it rises 167 feet (51 meters) if you include a mound it sits on and the crown on the head.
By comparison, the statue in Brazil's Rio is 125 feet (38 meters) tall.
While it wasn't possible to verify the exact height of the new statue, there was no doubt that "Christ the King," as the golden-crowned Polish statue is called, cut an imposing sight as it was finally completed.
It has divided Poles and underlined the deep cultural divide between a deeply Catholic population and an increasingly confident secular society — with many mocking the statue project as tacky.
But many residents in Swiebodzin welcome it. They believe it will put their town of 22,000 on the map for tourists and Roman Catholic pilgrims and bring in needed money to renovate the historic buildings in the tiny town center.
"I am extremely proud," said Danuta Gordzelewska, a 60-year-old who watched as the statue's head was lowered into place.
Gordzelewska has donated money to the statue, which was funded by contributions from as far away as Canada. "It's special to watch something being built that later generations will have."
After many delays, a crane on Saturday morning lifted the arms and shoulders and slowly placed them onto the figure's lower body. Hours later, workers hoisted on the head, which is crowned with a golden king's crown — rather than the crown of thorns favored in Christian iconography.
Hundreds of onlookers then broke into applause, and some prayed, grasping rosaries. Workers in safety helmets and neon vests gathered at the base of the statue for a group photo, and Rev. Sylwester Zawadzki, the 78-year-old priest who created the statue, waded into an adoring crowd.
"I have never been as happy as I am today," he said, beaming but clearly exhausted after seeing through the project that experienced setbacks and delays.
Zawadzki, known in town as "the builder priest" after also erecting two churches and other buildings, said he felt that he was called by Jesus to build the statue.
"This is the culmination of my life's work as a priest," he told onlookers and reporters who pressed around him.
"I felt inspired to fulfill Jesus' will, and today I give thanks to him for allowing me to fulfill his will."
The priest, wearing a dark coat over his black robe, turned to walk away and local people flocked after him, some shaking his hand. "We thank you! We thank you!" they chanted.
The project faced numerous problems along the way. A skeptical bishop put the brakes on it at one point and state officials also suspended the project for some time, fearing the size made it unsafe. The priest had a heart attack but recovered.
More recently, an attempt to finally mount the figure had to be aborted because it turned out that the crane at hand was not powerful enough to lift the arms and shoulders — weighing 30 tons (27 metric tons) — onto the standing body. A more powerful crane was obtained but further delays were caused this week by heavy winds.
Zawadzki said he kept the faith all along.
"I never had any doubts, not even for a minute," he said.