The Span­ish ex-monk on a 56-year mis­sion to build his own cathe­dral

The Guardian Australia - - World News - Sam Jones in Me­jo­rada del Campo

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.