The church rises above the town, the massive structure still years away from completion after more than half a century under construction. Its giant dome, rising 130 feet above the street, is still little more than exposed steel girders. There are two dozen other towers in various stages of completion, some with storks nesting in them. The edifice appears slapped together, with its hodge-podge of styles and with building materials scavenged from construction sites and junkyards. The window arches bear the imprint of the tires that served to mold them. The stained-glass windows were made from melted-down soda bottles or from plastic sheeting colored with felt-tip pens. The concrete columns supporting the roof were made with empty oil drums stacked one upon another. It is a wonder that the structure has not long since collapsed upon itself. Even more astonishing is the fact that the project, from its inception, is almost entirely the work of a single individual who served as architect, engineer, stonemason, and bricklayer without formal training in any building trade.
Justo Gallego Martinez is a farmer’s son who grew up in Mejorada del Campo, a small town outside of Madrid. His formal schooling ended at age 11 due to disruptions caused by the Spanish Civil War. He entered a Trappist monastery as a young man but was forced to withdraw shortly before taking his final vows when he contracted tuberculosis. He prayed that if he recovered, he would build a shrine to Nuestra Señora del Pilar (“Our Lady of the Pillar”), a name given to the Virgin Mary based on her miraculous appearance to the Apostle James during an early missionary expedition in Spain. Martinez did recover, and he set to work fulfilling his vow on the feast day of Nuestra Señora del Pilar in 1961. He has been toiling away ever since, six days per week from dawn to dusk, using hand tools that are little different from the ones that built the medieval cathedrals.
Skeptics have likened Martinez to Don Quixote, the deluded knight errant of Miguel de Cervantes’ picaresque novel of the same name, who famously jousted with a windmill, thinking it was a dragon. But Martinez is neither the dreamer who builds castles in the air nor the madman who lives in them. His dream, however improbable, has slowly taken shape from broken bricks and junkyard treasures, rising to impressive heights on a plot of land that had formerly been part of his family’s farm. His undertaking has been financed from his inheritance and from private donations. The project has not been sanctioned by the church nor by municipal authorities. Martinez never even bothered to secure building permits and probably could not have obtained them if he had tried. And yet, as the project gradually began to attract notice, first in Spain and later throughout the world, he has won grudging respect from many quarters. Whereas once he had been derided as “el loco de la iglesia,” the crazy man of the church, he is now universally addressed with the honorific Don Justo.
First Don Justo was likened to Don Quixote, more recently to the visionary Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi, whose unfinished masterpiece is the Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona, which looks a bit like a giant waxworks cathedral left out in the hot sun. The town fathers in Mejorada del Campo implicitly acknowledged the link in giving Gaudi’s name to the street on which Don Justo’s creation now rises. Gaudi labored obsessively on the Sagrada Familia for 43 years before he was struck and killed by a streetcar in 1926. Work has continued on the basilica ever since. The fate of Don Justo’s church remains uncertain. Its structural integrity is open to question, and the land on which it is built is arguably too valuable to waste on one man’s eccentric vision. Don Justo has indicated he will bequeath his life’s work to the church, but it is not clear they would know what to do with it.
What possesses someone to dedicate his life to a project that he knows may not long outlive him? If he had his life to live over, Don Justo insists, he would build his church again, only twice as big. “Because, for me, this is an act of faith,” he explains. In such matters, no further explanation is required. One thinks of Francis of Assisi, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, who had ambitions of becoming a soldier. Then, while praying in a tumbledown chapel, he heard a voice from heaven commanding him, “Go, build my church.” Francis thought he was being told to rebuild local churches in disrepair, not realizing at first that he was being called to found a new monastic order. With Don Justo, there was no voice commanding him to build a church. He had promised to erect a shrine if his life was spared, and he took his recovery as a sign from heaven. He fulfilled his vow by building a massive shrine – a cathedral, he called it. And if he had another life to live, he would have built it twice as big. He was another Noah, building his ark in the desert while assembling a vast menagerie, every creature on earth, two by two. No doubt the neighbors thought Noah was crazy as well. But then, as it turned out, Noah knew something his neighbors did not.