The Spanish ex-monk on a 56-year mission to build his own cathedral
In a small town just to the west of Madrid, a cathedral is being built – just as it has been for the past 56 years. It is a symbol of one man’s faith and dedication.
Its creator is Justo Gallego, a 92year-old former monk now too frail to do much more than supervise the construction of his idiosyncratic cathedral – an act of devotion he began this day in 1961 – and chastise those women who dare to enter the house of God wearing short skirts.
He sits in an armchair in the building site that is the cathedral’s nave, among the bags of sand, cement and render, and beneath bright frescoes showing the Annunciation and the Finding in the Temple. Swallows hurl themselves around the columns and galleries of his life’s work.
But Gallego knows he is unlikely to live to see the cathedral completed. “I’m drowning,” he says, tapping his chest.
Gallego began the project on 12 October 1961, the feast day of Nuestra Señora del Pilar, after tuberculosis forced him to leave the Cistercian order and return home to revive an old dream.
He was nine years old when the Spanish civil war broke out. As well as the nights spent hiding from bombs in cellars and the dogfights that sent planes spinning towards the ground, he remembers the churches burned down by the communists.
“I’d had the idea for the cathedral since I was a child,” he says. “I’ve always loved the church. When I was little and my mother used to give me money, instead of spending it on silly things, I bought candles and gave them to the priest. It all comes from what my mother taught me.”
With the help of volunteers, donations and the odd bequest – not to mention a Land Rover, an excavator and a John Deere tractor – he has managed to keep the dream alive.
His friend and factotum Ángel López has promised to carry on the work when Gallego has gone and ensure the cathedral is one day a home for the faithful.
“Ángel is very good and he knows what he’s doing … I don’t do anything any more; those days are over. I just sit and tell Ángel what to put where and what not to do.”
All Gallego lacks now are funds – and a little more time.
The cathedral has been built on land owned by the Gallego family, without the permission or support of the local council. From steel, cement, old car tyres, bottles and willpower, Gallego has fashioned towers, a crypt, a cloister and the dome, which sits 35 metres (115ft) above the dusty floor.
The temple of brick and thrifty ingenuity is known as the Cathedral of Faith.
“I’ve never thought about abandoning the project. You have to carry on. The only thing I need is money. I don’t need architects; I’ve moved past them. I’m a hard worker: give me the money and I’ll make it look beautiful.”
He lives frugally, sleeps in a room off the cathedral complex and, save for the odd plea for sartorial modesty (“I tell them to get out and come back properly covered”), exchanges few words with tourists and visitors.
Those who make the pilgrimage are politely steered in the direction of an enormous donation box while signs ask people to leave Gallego alone and instead commemorate the trip with a €15 book about his life or a €5 calendar.
Despite his fervour, anchoritic existence and frequent depiction as one-part Don Quixote, one-part Antoni Gaudí and one-part monomaniac, Gallego is very aware of how he is seen in the town and beyond.
“They think this is all the work of a madman. It doesn’t bother me at all. The pharisees said Christ was casting out devils with the help of Beelzebub, that he was possessed.”
And besides, he hints, sometimes the act itself is more important than its result.
“You have to follow Christ on the cross,” he says. “Some people are Christians in name only: when they see the cross, they hide. Not me. I’m always focused on the cross.”
Justo Gallego supervises the building of his cathedral in the Spanish town of Mejorada del Campo. Photograph: Sam Jones for the Guardian
The exterior of Gallego’s cathedral. Photograph: Sam Jones for the Guardian