Sunday, 9 May 2010

Madman or miracle worker? Don Justo and the DIY cathedral in Mejorada del Campo, Madrid

At first glance, Mejorada del Campo is just like any other small Spanish town. Its urban landscape is dotted with houses, flats, restaurants, churches and shops. However, unlike most provincial towns, it's also home to a cathedral. And not just any cathedral either, but one which local man-turned-monk-turned-builder Justo Gallego has been building by himself since 1963.

Don Justo (as the media have dubbed him) was born in Mejorada del Campo near Madrid in 1925. Profoundly Christian from the beginning, he entered a Trappist monastery at the age of 27, but had to leave after contracting tuberculosis. Back in Mejorada, Justo found himself at a loose end until one day he felt inspired to construct a cathedral on his family's land (as you do). And so, without any architectural or building experience, any planning permission or indeed any plans, Justo set to work and began his Catedral de Nuestra Señora del Pilar.

I first read about 'La Catedral de Justo' (as it is commonly known) several years ago in the British press. I was surprised, intrigued and moved by Justo's story; by the power of one man's unshakeable faith in modern times. The long-buried memory of Justo and his pet project surfaced recently when I realised that the cathedral was only miles from Madrid. A few weeks later, I arrived in Mejorada del Campo to see this much-described building with my own eyes; to judge for myself whether it is an endeavour of faith or folly. 

After turning to books to educate himself in the art of construction, Justo devoted all his energy to his cathedral-building mission. Dependent on donations of money or materials, the cathedral largely consists of an unlikely combination of concrete and salvaged scrap. And when I say scrap, I don't just mean metal: along with more traditional substances like brick and wood, Justo's cathedral also incorporates broken tiles and cardboard in its design, making its structural soundness questionable. Our first impressions as we glimpsed the cathedral that Sunday morning were of the sheer size of his undertaking, of its unfinished appearance, and of its eclectic, chaotic charm.

Entering the main body of the cathedral (admission free; donations appreciated), a shaft of light through the stained glass window illuminated the dusty floor, cluttered at the edges with seemingly abandoned stacks of stone, wood or the ubiquitous rusty springs which somehow find their way into so many elements of the building's design. A pile of pews was stacked in one corner; haphazardly covered by a plastic sheet. If appearances are anything to go by, it will be a long time before those benches are graced by the backsides of Mejorada del Campo's churchgoers. Looking up, a patch of sky and the occasional aeroplane bound for Barajas are visible through the central dome, as yet uncovered. The brick of the towers stops abruptly, giving way to the skeleton of a metal structure. Staircases to heaven lead to nowhere. The concrete walls are partially painted, turning from blue to grey where the supply ran out or the attention wandered. In short, it's far from finished.

Wandering around the massive complex of chapels, crypt, courtyard and cloisters, I was struck by the amount of areas started, but not completed. The structure is littered with signs of industry; here an old overall, there some tools. It is as though Justo's attention span has remained childishly short, darting from one activity to the next as the mood takes him. Clearly wishing to make a start on every part of the building rather than waiting for the main body of the cathedral to be finished, there is a real risk that Justo will not live to see the completion of his project. Now in his 80s, he is certainly more sprightly than most men his age, but nowadays he can only do so much. Adhering to the customs of his religion, Sunday seems to be a day of rest for Justo, so we did not see him at work, although he assured us that he still scales the heights of the cathedral's cupola. Dressed in his Sunday best of a slightly shabby black suit and his ever-present red woollen cap, he sat in the cathedral calmly surveying his handiwork and its admirers.

'There's no other word for it', he beamed in reply. Despite the many challenges he faces to secure funding and quality building materials, Justo seemed undeterred, completely focused on his life's work. He told us that for the last few years he has been assisted by two paid workers, a Romanian man living locally and another from Toledo who works part-time on the windows and more intricate aspects of the design. The local council hinders rather than helps his efforts; several months ago he paid them a large sum in tax. When asked if he planned to cover the cathedral's dome, he said that it was due to happen this year, and that a European company had expressed an interest in donating the necessary materials. In the meantime though, a large board displays Justo's bank account details, hoping to cajole those visitors inspired by his work to make a contribution.  

There is no denying that Justo's endeavour is an undertaking of epic proportions. To achieve as much as he has, he has focused single-mindedly on his mission. Does this make him mad, as some of the media make out? The Spanish press sometimes refer to him as 'el loco de la catedral', as one of the headlines from Justo's board featuring his media appearances attests. In my mind, it doesn't. Yes, he may have tunnel vision, but before calling him foolish or questioning his sanity, one has to evaluate the enormity of his achievement. He has single-handedly built, over more than half a century, the majority of a cathedral. It may not be finished, its materials may be unconventional and its future may be uncertain, but Justo's hard work and commitment are worthy of respect rather than ridicule. One can only hope that he lives to see it progress, and that after he's gone the town council relents and preserves his life's work for generations to come. 

Don Justo photo: Mejilopezvaqzuez/Flickr

To get to Mejorada del Campo from Madrid, take bus 282 from Avenida de América.

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