In Spain, a baffling labor of love
Officials consider man's 'cathedral' project an eyesore
MEJORADA DEL CAMPO, Spain -- It looks like a Disneyland castle grafted onto a medieval cathedral. Its builder is an 81-year-old man who has spent four decades working on it mostly by himself, without planning permission, architect's drawings, or previous construction experience.
To some, the 10-story product of Justo Gallego's labor of love is an awesome monument to faith and perseverance.
But to municipal officials in this gritty industrial town on the southeastern fringe of Madrid, it's something of an eyesore.
"For the town hall, Justo's thing is a big problem," said government spokeswoman Flora Saura, lifting her shoulders to convey a sense of helplessness. "Everybody's fond of him, but he's living in another world."
"It's all in my head," Gallego wrote on a board hanging inside the door of the enormous structure. "I am not an architect and I confess to having no training related to construction."
Two questions arise: Will he able to finish it? Unlikely. And what if he doesn't? No one knows. Although he has nephews, Gallego has reportedly willed his brainchild to the bishopric of nearby Alcala de Henares.
Saura calls it a "a poisoned present." Mejorada del Campo, she says, has neither the expertise nor the money to take charge, and repeated requests to the regional and national governments and to the Roman Catholic Church for help have gotten nowhere.
"Nobody wants anything to do with it," she said. "There's no project, no construction permits, no inspections, no architect's plans. It's totally illegal and numerous legal proceedings have been opened against him."
With a metal-frame dome in striking blue reaching about 130 feet high, and a half-dozen towers of broken red brick expected to go higher, the architectural mishmash and annexes lie on the edge of town, on part of about 3 square miles of land Gallego inherited from his parents.
Inside, as light and rain come through the incomplete arched roof of corrugated iron, the frail but awesomely agile Justo toils away, hauling buckets of material to the upper floors using a children's bicycle wheel for a pulley.
Buckets of gravel and bags of clay and cement lie around. Rusty scaffolding stretches precariously skyward. A bench is laden with candles, prayer cards, and statues of the Virgin Mary. A huge collection box is full of donations from well wishers.
But while it lacks a bishop's blessing to be a cathedral, it has a crypt, a cloister, a flight of steps to the front, a portico, arches, and spiral staircases inside its towers.
Helped occasionally by volunteers, Gallego has built it from used materials such as oil bins for molds, or discarded construction bricks for the towers. Individuals and companies have helped in various ways. Financing has come from private donations and selling or leasing parts of his land.
"No finishing date has been set," his message board says. "I limit myself to offering every day of work which He [God] chooses to cede to me and to feel happy with what I have achieved so far."
On the board, a brief rundown of his life story explains that he has written it because he is hoarse from answering queries.
That is not surprising, given the busloads of visitors, and the clippings from British, French, Dutch, German, and Swedish papers on display, stretching back years.
He will talk only for money, he barks, because journalists "are vermin" and until his creation became famous, "they made fun of me."
Gallego studied to be a Trappist monk but says he was expelled from the order after he contracted tuberculosis in the early 1960s.
So he started building his cathedral, which he hasn't formally named but has dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
"Different books on cathedrals, castles , and other important buildings shed light on my own," the board says. "But my chief source, the light of my inspiration, has been the gospel of Christ."
Townspeople tend to view him benignly.
"Aye Justo! We're all behind him, but they should tear it down or finish it once and for all," said Epifania Corredero, who runs a bar opposite Gallego's building.
"Sure, he has to be a little bit mad to do what he's done. It's just a pity he didn't try to build something more useful. We have enough churches."