Will Bureaucracy Fell Spain's One-Man Cathedral?

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Susana Vera / Reuters

The unfinished cathedral in the central Spanish town of Mejorada del Campo

Almost fifty years ago, Justo Gallego wanted to thank God for curing his tuberculosis, so he decided to build a cathedral — by himself. Since then, the former monk, who has no construction training, has labored every day on his 86,000-sq.-ft. (8,000 sq m) creation in the center of Mejorada del Campo, on the outskirts of Madrid. Today the cathedral is more than half done and has made its creator and his hometown famous throughout Spain. But at the age of 85, Gallego knows he will never see his project to the end. His hope is that the local diocese will take it over when he's gone. Instead, a problem with zoning permits may mean Spain's one-man cathedral will have to come down.

For almost half a century, Gallego has relied on his instinct and "God's guiding hand" — no blueprints, no equipment — to build the pillars, walls and arches of his cathedral, mostly out of discarded construction materials. It comes complete with two towers, a crypt, cloisters, offices, a library and a 130-ft.-high (40 m) dome modeled on the cupola of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. "They called me crazy and laughed at me, but look at it," Gallego says defiantly as he paints a steel beam on one of the 147-ft. (45 m) towers. "I started with a cross and then just kept on building."

But the future of Gallego's legacy is uncertain. He is building his cathedral, which isn't officially recognized by the church, without any permits. Municipal authorities admit privately that for decades they looked the other way as Gallego raised his structure only a couple of blocks from city hall, in part because he is now beloved in town, but also because few actually thought he would succeed.

That tactic won't work for much longer, though, as Gallego prepares to leave his incomplete masterpiece to the Diocese of Alcalá de Henares, which will have to decide whether to keep building the cathedral or destroy it. "What Don Justo has done is admirable. I kneel before his faith," says Father Florentino Rueda, vicar and legal adviser of the diocese. "But this construction is illegal, which means we could inherit a problem."

The story of Gallego's quixotic quest dates back to Spain's civil war. Gallego, born in 1925, was too young to fight, but the war brought his schooling to an abrupt end and he spent most of his youth working on his family's farmlands. A devout Catholic, he left home and joined a monastery when he was 27 with plans of becoming a priest, only to have his dreams dashed nine years later when he was expelled for contracting tuberculosis. After his recovery — which involved spending two years in a hospital — he returned home to Mejorada del Campo and decided to "marry" the Church his own way: by consecrating his life to building a cathedral for Our Lady of the Pillar, whom he had prayed to while he was ill.

Back then, in the 1960s, Spain was ruled by the dictatorial General Francisco Franco and a government strongly aligned with the Catholic Church. Local authorities extended Gallego an open building permit for the cathedral on his land in the middle of town. With sporadic help from his nephews and money he got from selling other properties he had inherited, Gallego began construction in 1963. For inspiration, he looked to just three books about cathedrals and castles.

At first, the cathedral was the object of ridicule, but in time, Gallego earned the respect of many of his neighbors. Then people from across the region volunteered for days or weeks at a time to help and construction companies donated surplus building materials and money. But even after Franco's death in 1975 and Spain's return to democratic rule, nobody brought up the permit issue.

Then, in 2005, the cathedral was used in an advertising campaign for the energy drink Aquarius, catapulting Mejorada del Campo to national fame. The rural village became a tourist magnet, with visitors arriving from around Spain by the busload to see Gallego's work. After touring the grounds littered with scrap metal and other building materials — with no apparent concern for health and safety regulations — they can buy calendars and books on Gallego at the door. The attention has now brought the building-permit problem out into the open, but nobody is willing to be the villain who puts an end to Gallego's quest. "The entire country would condemn them if they tried," Father Rueda says.

Officially, the cathedral is "in legal limbo," a city hall official says, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. Mejorada del Campo has asked regional and national authorities to intervene, but the ultimate jurisdiction is municipal. "The work is very advanced and we don't know how to stop it," the official says. "We are all concerned about what happens if this thing falls down, but nobody wants to be responsible for stopping [the construction]. Many people here have grown up with the cathedral."

What happens next is anybody's guess. "We would like to legalize it, but how much is it going to cost? Is it even possible? And who's going to insure this?" Father Rueda asks. But Gallego isn't worried about permits and costs — those are issues to be dealt with once he's gone. "I trust the laws of God, which helped me come this far," he says. For now, he is focused simply on dedicating the rest of his life — however little time that may be — to bringing his dream as close to reality as possible.