I’ve heard about this guy before, but I’ve never seen pictures of the church this extensive, and he’s made a lot of progress the last few years.
The Madman and the Cathedral, a 20-minute documentary in English by James Rogan.
Some people call him “Don Justo”, the Spanish honorific for a monk who’s also ordained as a priest. He’s actually a layman named Justo Gallego Martinez. Once he was a novice Trappist monk (at Santa Maria de la Huerta, in Soria), but he contracted tuberculosis. Any serious health problem that surfaces in the long novitiate is seen by orders as a sign that God doesn’t mean you for a monk, or that your body’s not strong enough for all the work, and for shifts of sleep broken by constant prayer. (Since God makes your body, that’s a valid clue.) Tuberculosis, being contagious and thus dangerous in any enclosed community, is usually an automatic out.
So they sent him home in 1961, at the age of 35, in his eighth year of monkhood, to find what God did mean him for. He prayed to Our Lady of the Pillar that his tuberculosis would be cured, and promised that he would build her a church if he got well. He did. So Don Justo decided that he was meant to build a church. A big church. And since he couldn’t raise enough funds and enthusiasm for it, he’d just build it himself.
That’s not unprecedented. When St. Francis heard God telling him, “Rebuild my Church”, his initial interpretation was that God wanted him to restore the small broken-down church in which he was praying, so he did. Then he built or rebuilt several other small churches, which led to the foundation of the Franciscan family of orders and to the various Franciscan church reform movements. In mission lands, it’s very common for priests and religious without any architectural or construction experience to find themselves building churches for villages. There’s a German missionary priest in Peru who’s built hundreds, planning them in his head and using the ordinary people of each parish as labor.
But Don Justo started work on a cathedral-sized church, using nothing but scrap and repurposeable trash folks let him scrounge and his own labor, spending his inheritance money on what had to be bought, and renting out the rest of his land to farmers to get money to live and build on. Twenty years ago, he got a part-time helper, Angel Lopez Sanchez; and his six nephews helped him with the steel beams for the dome. Sometimes volunteers or donations show up, and when there’s money, he sometimes hires a summer helper. Otherwise it’s all him, collecting scrap at four in the morning and beginning construction work at six, reading books about cathedrals to get information and ideas. Working out in the fresh air every day but Sunday has kept his lungs healthy. Apparently God knew what He was doing. 🙂
He’s obviously an ardent spirit in the Spanish style, fasting and making promises to God that he then fulfills, trusting God to take care of the details. But he’s not a vacant-eyed dreamer, as you’ll see in the documentary. He’s a shrewd hardheaded person, concerned with making his church both beautiful and “economical”, and not letting anything useful go to waste. If he weren’t born Spanish, he’d be some tough old Yankee from up in New England.
His work was featured in an ad for a Coke product in Spain in 2005; the money and attention from this is apparently why he’s been able to make such progress lately. A lot of people call it a sign of the power of one individual with a dream, but Don Justo says it’s all about the power of the Gospel. Unfortunately, visitors can only look from the outside at present, because the mayor is concerned about safety. (And to be fair, it’s a work site, and Don Justo doesn’t want to be distracted.)
Previous stories I’d seen about this guy made it sound like his “cathedral” was a rattletrap. Obviously architecture can have hidden flaws, but the BBC news story on TV showed a solid, massive structure with graceful lines, and amazingly beautiful stained glass and murals executed by Mr. Lopez with ground glass in all sorts of colors. The reporters weren’t shy of going inside, as previous reporters were. The documentary shows some scary-seeming practices, but it does all seem to work. It’s already a real tourist attraction, and I hope that someday it can be checked out by structural engineers and then dedicated as a church.
Nobody had a problem with Don Justo’s little project when it was just heaps of stone and brick on a hill on his inherited land. He even had an “open building permit” that was supposed to make it all okay. But now the law keeps making noises about demolishing all Don Justo’s hard work. It’s been fine for decades, but now it’s suddenly dangerous. And of course, no union construction workers or professional architects are behind it, so it’s automatically against the rules.
A work of beauty like this should not be held back by planning permissions (which nobody asked for when he started) or EU architecture laws (ditto). After fifty years, surely it’s grandfathered in! If it ends up being solid and safe when it’s done, waive the rules. If it’s not, let people enter at their own risk, and have it just be a devotional work of art instead of a working church. Either way, it’s a latter-day wonder.
When he dies (may the day be far off!), he’s left the building and land to the diocese of Alcala de Henares. Nobody knows what they’ll do with it. He would like it to be a church dedicated to Our Lady of the Pillar (Nuestra Senora de la Pilar).
At any rate, it does raise one question — if your parish church isn’t at least as beautiful as this homemade project, why not?
Information on bank account for donations.
Juan Gallego Martinez on Wikipedia, in English and (with more info) in Spanish.
Mejorada del Campo, now a suburb of Madrid instead of a country town. The Spanish page has much more info than the English one.
Don Justo’s explanatory flyer for visitors. In Spanish.
A plan of how he hopes it will look when finished.
A 2005 picture, which shows how much further along he’s gotten in just five years.
A 2005 news story which shows what it was like up on the roof.
A Flicker pool of photos of the place.
A fan webpage. In Spanish.
A 2010 travel story with a picture of an entranceway.