There are hundreds of magnificent cathedrals across Europe, so why do streams of visitors journey to a Madrid suburb to see an unfinished cathedral being built largely with discarded materials and without blueprints by an eccentric, elderly man?
My wife, two friends and I decided to see for ourselves, leaving behind the museums and tapas bars of Madrid. As we traveled to Mejorada del Campo, we wondered about the cathedral’s builder, 89-year-old Justo Gallego Martinez, better known as Don Justo. Is he a modern-day Don Quixote flailing at an impossible dream, or is he a visionary of extraordinary persistence, perhaps even a genius?
As we entered the cathedral, rays of sunlight poured through an unfinished dome, creating a sunburst of filtered light. Don Justo, a small, wiry man, greeted us with a wide smile. He told us that his first ambition — to become a Roman Catholic monk — was shattered when he contracted tuberculosis and had to leave the monastery. He prayed, meditated and finally came up with a plan to serve God. He would build a church, or better yet, a cathedral.
Don Justo was neither an architect nor engineer and lacked construction experience. No matter. He consulted books and photos of cathedrals and other famous buildings and began construction in 1961.
In that era, during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, Mejorada del Campo was a tiny farming community. No one paid much attention to construction that began without building permits.
Now 53 years and about 165,000 work hours later, Don Justo’s roughly hewed cathedral is perhaps 75% finished.
Towers and a dome, modeled on St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, must be completed; a floor and pews must be installed; labor-intensive finishing touches must be applied everywhere.
What has been completed is impressive. Rising from 22 steps in the front, the entrance incorporates design elements from the North Portico of the White House. A chapel, offices and small apartments surround a courtyard alongside the main structure.
Storks have taken a liking to the complex and formed giant nests on four towers. Airliners roar overhead after takeoff from nearby Madrid-Barajas Airport.
The interior, about half the size of a football field, resembles a nearly empty warehouse, albeit with handsome arches and murals leading to a large second-story choir area. A Ford sedan sat along the left wall and an unfinished altar stood in the middle.
Near the right wall, Don Justo warmed his hands over a crackling fire and gave a snack to his Chihuahua.
“How did you come up with the cathedral plans?” I asked Don Justo.
“From the beginning,” he replied, “it’s been all in my head.”
“How do you respond to people who call you loco?”
Don Justo grinned and said, “Loco por Cristo.”
There is little doubt that of the 7 billion of us who inhabit this Earth, Don Justo would rank in the top 1% for faith, grit and determination.
After returning from the monastery, Don Justo sold land he had inherited and began construction on a remaining parcel in his hometown of Mejorada del Campo, 12 miles east of Madrid.
He rose early each morning to collect bricks and blocks that a local factory had discarded as irregular. He also gathered used oil drums, plastic, pieces of steel and sheet metal. He cemented a scrap piece of this to a recycled piece of that, hour after hour, day after day.
The cathedral began to draw more visitors after Don Justo was featured in a Spanish TV ad a decade ago. Images of the cathedral also were included in exhibits at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and later in Valladolid, Spain.
Over the years, companies and individuals donated materials. For the last 20 years, Don Justo has been assisted by Angel Lopez, a Spaniard who has taken on the heavy lifting. Spaniards and a priest and parishioners from Germany work as volunteers for short periods each year.
When the cathedral will be finished is an open question. Don Justo’s inheritance is exhausted, and he prays that donations from around the world will enable him to continue the work. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church has offered no funds or assurance that it will consecrate the structure as a church or cathedral.
Don Justo remains optimistic. “With the necessary funds, we can finish la catedral in two to three years,” he said. “Once we complete the dome and finish the floor and pews, religious services can be held here.”
He has dedicated the cathedral to the Virgin Mary and has named it Nuestra Señora del Pilar.
For our friends, Augustine Gallego (no relation to Don Justo) and Karen Thaxton, this visit to the cathedral is their fifth since 1990. Gallego, chancellor emeritus of the San Diego Community College District, told me, “With each trip, I continue to be inspired by what one man can accomplish. Don Justo looks a bit frail, but he’s sharp and still possesses an incredible passion for his work and devotion to God.”
My wife, Barbara, and I also marveled at the work of Don Justo, who seems to be a throwback to builders without architectural credentials who nonetheless created Europe’s grand cathedrals.
We were intrigued by the cathedral’s towers, built with misshaped clay blocks that look like multicolored waffles, jutting from crude mortar work. Later on, the block towers will be covered fully with concrete. To this untrained observer, the cathedral looks solid, but the municipal government has yet to inspect it for structural safety.
The easiest way to get to the cathedral from Madrid is by taxi during non-rush hour (about $35 each way). Instead, we went by subway to Avenida de America station and then by the No. 282 bus to the Avenida Reja Grande stop in Mejorada del Campo. The subway is convenient, but avoid it if you struggle with stairs.
Admission to the cathedral (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) is free; a donation box sits near the door. You are more likely to spot Don Justo at work Mondays through Saturdays. Ironically, the cathedral stands on a street named for an architect of another unfinished cathedral — Antonio Gaudí of the famed Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona. Don Justo also has a street named in his honor in recognition of the attention and tourists he’s brought to the quiet community of 23,000 residents.
After our cathedral tour and conversations, we bade Don Justo adios and headed for lunch at La Posada del Hi-Da restaurant, two blocks away, near our bus stop on Paseo del Arenero.
A large plate of scrumptious roasted vegetables landed on our table and we dug in, followed by roasted goat, potatoes and drinks.
As we finished our desserts and coffee, we stared out the window at the cathedral and savored what had been a fascinating day trip.