JUSTO Gallego Martinez, a former monk who devoted the last six decades of his life to building a cathedral out of scrap in a town outside Madrid, died at the weekend at the grand old age of 96.
Yet his life’s work remains unfinished, a towering vision rising up in the nondescript satellite town of Mejorada del Campo, constructed piece by salvaged piece into a cathedral complex that includes a vast basilica, a crypt, multiple towers and cloisters.
Shards of coloured glass are transformed into stained glass windows, mosaics formed by shattered tiles rescued from building sites decorate uneven stairs and above the skeleton of a copula rises above the altar, still open to the sky.
Columns made from oil drums and worn down car tires support the unfinished cloisters and the walls are painted with frescoes depicting religious scenes such as the Last Supper, while misshapen busts of the disciples stare eerily down from their pedestals within the crypt.
There are comparisons with Spain’s other more famous unfinished basilica – Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and in fact Justo’s cathedral by coincidence stands on a street called Avenida Antoni Gaudi.
The structure is a labour of love and devotion that Don Justo, as he was known locally, began in 1961 after a bout of tuberculosis forced him to leave an order of Trappist monks at a monastery in Soria.
While recovering he returned to the town of his birth and it is here that began his extraordinary project which he dedicated to Our Lady of Pilar.
“Step by step and with my own family resources, I have been raising this building,” Don Just wrote in a sign posted at the door of the cathedral to explain his project to visitors. “The building has neither plans nor official blueprint. It is all in my head. I am not an architect, nor a mason, nor do I have any training related to construction.”
It is this lack of technical expertise that meant the building had an uncertain fate. Built without planning permits and outside of standard building regulations, few thought it would survive without its creator.
Don Justo had tried to bequeath it to the Catholic Church but they repeatedly refused to take it on.
But as Don Justo’s health worsened, a miracle occurred. On November 9, the entire complex – bar four rogue cupolas – was declared structurally sound, paving the way for the town council to petition for it to be declared Bien de Interes Cultural (an asset of cultural interest).
And it has a new champion in the form of maverick Madrid priest, Father Angel Garcia Rodriguez, who has become known for his innovative projects with the homeless and downtrodden in the capital.
The Messengers of Peace, the charity run by Father Angel will now oversee the site and there are plans to turn it into a multi-faith open space dedicated to helping those in need.
“There are already too many cathedrals and too many churches, that sometimes lack people,” said Father Angel, who has already transformed San Anton church in Madrid’s Chueca into a beacon for the needy.
“It will not be a typical cathedral, but a social centre where people can come to pray or if they are facing difficulties,” he said.