Images of Spain: A Homemade Cathedral

Certain things defy all logic.  In this case, there are about seven of them: 1) that there is a cathedral in a small suburban town called Mejorada del Campo being built nearly single-handedly by an amiable former monk named Justo Gallego; 2) that there is even a cathedral in Mejorada at all ; 3) that Justo has been working on it for over fifty years; 4) that he is 88 years old and still shows up every day to get a little more done; 5) that he is indisputably a great inspiration to those in search of spiritual strength and yet the Catholic Church refuses to recognize his efforts or his sacred temple; 6) that barely anyone goes by to see it;

That…that…Well maybe there are only six…but that’s pretty good.

        The shameful thing is that I have been thinking about a seventh for ten minutes and have given up.  Justo has been methodically erecting this enormous temple since the early 1960s and acts and talks and moves and gestures and beams and seems as if he has no plan to depart from this world for another fifty.  That could constitute the final and most defiant fact of them all.  Time will tell; as will his death.

        For the moment, however, good old Justo is still there.  I saw him the other day with my own eyes.  We hadn’t been there but two minutes when his frail, frugal frame emerged from an arched doorway, in a spry, yet, restricted gait that suggested age, yet, agelessness.

         Yes, I saw him with my own eyes.  I saw his bright and watery aged eyes with my own eyes.  He was still as optimistic about his project as I remembered, although it had been two years since I had last been at the cathedral.  There have been changes.  Frescoes depicting the nativity story have been painted over the arches, though the church itself still has a ways to go before being completed.  The crypt has shown some progress.  There is a small altar where the main one which eventually be placed, if it is at all.  That was what I could remember.  But much still remains the same.  There must be doesn’t a details I have forgotten about.

        Yes, here is a picture of its interior, taken from above.  Yes, that is a tiny statue of the Virgin Mary on the stump of a truncated miniature pillar, and yes, that’s a car parked in the nave below.  Don’t ask what make it is because I don’t know.  But that’s the kind of thing I expect to find in Justo’s cathedral.

        A visit to this unique place, this is not my first post on the subject, is a renewal of the spirit to fight for what one believes in.  A renewal of the understanding of knowing how to do stick with that spirit without throwing one’s humility out the window. So approachable.

        Some make fun of Justo and his apparently quixotic philosophy on life; while others admire him with a slight dose of envy laced with frustration and cynicism.  They claim the man could have finished it years ago, but hasn’t because he doesn’t want to, because when does, he won’t know what to do with his life.

        That’s quite an analysis they come up with, I think to myself.  On behalf of myself.  In spite of myself.

Justo and his Cathedral

Have I got a place for you to see the next time you are in Madrid!  And you have to see it with your own eyes because  just reading about it or looking up images online won’t do.

You know there are people who build castles in the air, and then there are those who say they are going to build a cathedral and actually do it.  About 12 miles due east of the capital, there is a small town called Mejorada del Campo which might have forever remained as an overlooked dot on your Google maps had it not been for a kind of modern wonder taking place there.  A man for the past 50 years has been building his own cathedral.  I ain’t kidding. 

It is the brainchild of Justo Gallego who is 85 years old.  He was born in Mejorada and as a young man decided to become a monk, so he joined the Trappist order (those are the guys who make those great Belgian beers.  Smart lad).  Before becoming ordained he came down with tuberculosis and had to leave the monastery.  According to the story, he was crushed and promised God that if he recovered he would do something as a show of love and appreciation.  He got better and decided to build a church.  That’s what I call being thankful.

He had no training whatsoever in architecture, engineering, building or carpentry.  On paper, he couldn’t have been able to piece together a Lego home.  But five decades later he is still going at it and the results are awe-inspiring. It was almost as if God had said: If you build it, they will come.   

Despite brief moments of fame, like in 2005 when he was featured on an Aquarius commercial, Justo’s momumental endeavor is still relatively unknown.  He estimates some 2,000 people come every summer to visit and even help (in the winter it must be substantially less), but that is a trifle number all said and told because it comes to little more than twenty a day.   Of these, many if not most are foreigners, who seem to be the ones who truly appreciate the marvel of it all.  I don’t know a single madrileño who has seen it.   Not one.  Whenever I mention it to someone from here, they kind of look at me with a confused expression on their faces and say, “Oh, yeah, I think I know who you’re talking about.” 

Not so surprisingly, not everyone shares his fans’ enthusiasm.  The Catholic church doesn’t support his cause, but that doesn’t surprise me, and others consider him an egocentric madman, which I find a bit absurd for a person who gets up before dawn ever day and humbly continues  his job. 

I had heard about this place for a couple of years now but never got to seeing it; that is until yesterday when I went with my family.  I was floored by its magnitude.  It’s enormous and it’s just absolutely incredible.   I couldn’t even begin to express the emotions that run through you as you see firsthand as they take up this already bulging entry.  Justo was there, of course, the way he is most days, quietly going about his business with the two or three helpers.  He is a friendly and courteous man, and he invites you to walk around and enjoy his work.  You find yourself staring from all angles at it to take in every detail and make sense of it all.  Awesome. 

I liked it so much, I returned this morning to show some more Americans who just loved it.    Maybe I can turn this into a new business.  I’m joking of course, but I would like to help spread the word.  I spoke to a woman from Germany today who was a filmmaker.  She was preparing a film and was hoping to start a foundation to support Justo’s dream.  I’ll keep you abreast of that if it materializes, because though Justo has come a long when in fulfilling his dream, he’s still got a long way to go.  Years and years.

You don’t have to be religious to admire his work.  Take it to a broader scale.  Consider his courage, his perseverence, his faith, his desire to live out a personal dream, and his pursuit of freedom.  These are universal characteristics worthy of admiration.