It may sound utopic for a man to set out to make a cathedral with his own hands in the 21st century. But this is the story of Justo Gallego Martínez, the illustrious neighbour of Mejorada del Campo (Madrid) who, thanks to his incredible imagination and the force of his faith, has been building an impressive Cathedral by himself for more than fifty years.
After working as a farmer and bullfighter, he spent eight years at a Trappist monastery where he was forced to leave after he fell ill with tuberculosis. He was left with was the strong conviction that God wanted him to build a temple.
It all started in 1963 when he laid the cathedral’s foundation stone. By that time, Spain was under Franco’s dictatorship, which allowed him to build a Church without any planning permission. Don Justo had no prior knowledge of architecture and no experience in the construction industry. But he turned his back on the fields and with no blueprints started collecting junk and discarded building materials in order to build his Cathedral.
This is his story, as he describes on the panel hanging on the entrance door of the Church:
My name is Justo Gallego. I was born in Mejorada del Campo on September 20, 1925. When I was very young, I had a deep Christian faith and I wanted to devote myself to the Creator. For this reason, when I was 27 I entered the monastery of Santa Maria de la Huerta in the province of Soria. After eight years, I fell ill with tuberculosis and I was forced to leave the community for fear I might contaminate the others.
I came back to Mejorada devastated by this setback to my first attempt at a spiritual life. So I decided to build, on farmland belonging to my family, an offering to God. Little by little, the building was erected, spending my family inheritance to keep it going. There were never any construction plans or official permission. Everything is in my head. I am not an architect or a stonemason. I have never had any training in the building profession. My basic education was interrupted by the Civil War. I was inspired by books about cathedrals, castles and other religious buildings and they gave birth to my own work. But my principle source of illumination and inspiration has always been the Word of Christ. It is He who guides me and it is to Him that I offer my work, in gratitude for the life he has given me and in penitence for those who have not followed his path.
It has been almost fifty years since I devoted myself to building this cathedral and I still get up at three thirty in the morning to start my day. With the exception from time to time of assistants, I have done it all by myself, mostly using recycled building materials… and there is not set date for the end of this work. I content myself everyday offering to the Almighty the work He wishes me to do and it makes me happy to think of what I have already accomplished. And I will continue, till the end of my days, to keep working on the cathedral with my resources and donations from other. Everything that is made in the name of God helps us to admire his reflected and eternal glory. – Justo Gallego Martinez.
Half a century has passed and the shell of the temple is complete, covering the 20×50 metre plot. Although the cathedral is not finished yet, it has several floors, three ships, two 60 meters high towers (hosting stork’s nests on the top), a dome (modelled on St. Peters), a vault, a baptistery, a crypt, and an ensemble of cloisters divided into 2,000 square meters. The complex also includes offices, lodgings, warehouses and a library.
Despite the scepticism of residents from Mejorada del Campo, Don Justo has impressively managed to build the place of worship without using so much as a crane and some help from his nephews and faithful friends like Angel Lopez, who dropped by almost 20 years ago to visit, and Carlos Luis, an architect from Madrid, who advises him on technical matters.
Justo makes tools with a broken exhaust pipe, using a bicycle wheel as a pulley and, during winter, he warms himself by a sunbed retrieved from a skip and strapped to the wall. He remains dependent on donations to buy materials and hiring help when he can. Volunteers, students, drug addicts and the homeless have come and gone.
The columns of the main structure are made from empty oil drums, the covering on one of the domes is made from discarded food tubes and stairs and vaults are constructed using coils of wire and reinforced concrete. At the moment, the building is far from finished as there are still windows left unpainted, floors needing to be completed, and domes to be covered, etc.
Neighbours and locals from Mejorada del Campo are against Justo and his Cathedral, referring to him as “The Lunatic Builder” as he is building with no planning permission. But Justo mentioned that authorities allow him to stay as long as he pays an annual fee, as the Cathedral has become an icon for the village.
“There are even organised tours that come to visit me! Schools from Germany, architecture students… everyone wants to see what I have done with my own hands”, says Justo.
Justo would like his cathedral to eventually serve as a functional parish church despite having no support from the Spanish Catholic Church or Local Authorities. This would be his dream, although no-one knows what will happen within the next 10 or 15 years. As of yet, no one has stepped up to take over the project.
His work is documented in a short film by director James Rogan, titled El Loco De La Catedral, The Mad Man and The Cathedral; a 20-minute documentary that describes the story of this magnificent building.
Everybody has a story when it’s put in a broader context, and this is Don Justo’s.
Tere García Alcaraz is an architect and development practitioner from Barcelona, with research and working experience in Ecuador, Venezuela, Spain and the UK. She lives in London.