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Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)



Born Justo Gallego Martinez, into a farming family in Mejorada del Campo, a non-descript suburb on the outskirts of Madrid, he was to become known to locals as Don Justo.

A very sickly boy, he was brought up as a devout Catholic. “I loved the church and put everything on this.”

His father died when he was 12 so he was forced to work in the fields alongside his mother. He called himself ‘a true peasant’. Whilst working, his mother would recite the Bible to him. Despite his father’s death, they were quite well off.

His education was interrupted by the Spanish Civil War. He saw priests executed by Republican troops and the church at Mejorada ransacked and destroyed. This left him with a lifelong hatred of socialism.

He entered a Trappist monastery as a novice. He quickly fell out with the other monks because he was so devoted – “strident and difficult.” He worked longer hours than necessary, prayed all night and was teetotal, refusing even the communion wine. Other monks said he “broke the rules.”

Just before his final vows, when he was 27, he contracted TB and was forced to leave the monastery for treatment, going to a Madrid hospital. He nearly died. He was told the austere lifestyle undertaken by Trappists had contributed to his condition – so he never returned (although it has been suggested the other monks refused to let him back in).

Whilst ill, he swore that if he ever recovered, he would rebuild the destroyed church and dedicate it to ‘Our Lady of the Pillar’ the saint to whom he had prayed during his darkest days. He said he was inspired by a vision from God – and he was to have regular conversations with God through repeated visions through the years.

He had inherited a plot of land in the village from his parents, so it was there, on October 12th 1961, he began building the church. It was the feast day of Our Lady of the Pillar.

He had no plans. He started by flattening the earth and then staking out his church. And he kept changing his mind about the style. Initially he wanted it to look like a traditional Spanish church, then a Spanish castle, then the White House (USA) and then St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

His one stipulation was that it would be bigger than Gaudi’s ‘Sagrada Familia’ in Barcelona, which he hated. “Gaudi is garbage. His stuff is completely over the top – too many spires, too much of everything.”

It was built entirely of recycled materials or donations of surplus materials from construction companies. Justo, who lived with his sister, rose each day at 3:30am and worked from 6am in the morning for 10 hours each day, except for Sundays when he would go to mass. He worked on the church it for 60 years.

He used broken bricks, shards of coloured glass, concrete, wood – even the pillars were made of disused oil drums.

Any costs such as advice from experts, he paid for himself from the rents he received from his farmland or from occasionally selling pieces of land.

And it grew from a church into a cathedral. It had a floor space of 20×50 metres and the Dome (modelled on St. Peters) was 40 metres high. It is nearly 5,000 square metres.

The Dome took 30 years of planning and 7 years to build, with no safety harness and spindly home-made scaffolding. He said God would protect him. His six nephews helped him with the dome.

It had a crypt, cloisters, many chapels, lodgings and a library.

Due to the use of recycled materials, the locals called it ‘The Cathedral of Junk’. In the early years he had abuse hurled at him and even stones thrown at him as he drove through the town collecting pieces of ‘junk’ on his tractor.

And then Justo fell out with his family. They protested that the cathedral was costing too much money and was draining the family fortunes. Justo moved out of his sister’s house and into the cathedral – and never spoke to his sister or nephews again.

And he was in real debt, so he lived like a hermit.

The only help he had was his close friend Angel Lopez Sanchez, who first visited the cathedral in the 1990s and off-handedly asked if he could help in anyway. He was immediately roped in. Sanchez was a labourer from Guadalajara. He immediately sold his house and moved in with Justo.

The money Sanchez got for his house paid off Justo’s by now, excessive debts

Over the years the two became close friends but bickered constantly. When money was short (most of the time), Sanchez would go out hunting rabbits for food. As the years passed and Justo’s health declined, he became Justo’s full-time carer.

The only concession Justo made to his age when he reached 85, was deciding to work in winter on the interior only.

He came to national attention in Spain in 2005 when his cathedral was featured on TV in an advert for Aquarius Soft Drinks (owned by Coca Cola) Then, donations from around the country started coming in (as well as the money he got from the advert).

His only holiday ever was to New York, paid for by Coca Cola – but he didn’t like it and asked to be flown home immediately.

There was another documentary on the Discovery Channel in 2006, entitled ‘The Madman and the Cathedral’.

He had a sign up in the cathedral saying, “No short skirts, No talking.” Once a charming young lady who was really impressed with the cathedral tried to praise him for his work. He replied, “Madame, you have used the ‘I’ word three times. This proves you are self-obsessed, and God does not approve.” He then threw her out.

He had no building permits and no permission from the Catholic church. Therefore, the local priest, Eusebio Sanchez Domingues was rather perturbed when Justo promised the church to the Catholics – and despite his friendship with Justo, was ordered to decline the offer.

Justo made a point of climbing to the top of the dome every single day.

Aged 95, Justo had to take to his bed, but still managed to rouse himself to work the occasional day in the cathedral, by wheelchair.

At 96 he was diagnosed with dementia. He then donated the cathedral to a non-government organisation, ‘Mensajeros de la Paz’ (Messengers of Peace) – on the condition they would finish the cathedral if he died.

In an interview Justo said, “I am not an architect or a stonemason. I have never had any training in the building profession. My principal source of illumination and inspiration has always been the word of Christ.”

He also said, “I’m ready for the end. I’ve done everything I need to do.”

And he did die shortly afterwards, inside the cathedral whilst he was working on it.

He wanted to be buried in the crypt –he used to say “My home, my grave” – but doing that did not reach Spanish sanitation rules, so he is buried in the communal cemetery of Mejorada del Campo.

Rather bizarrely, the village voted to name the street where the cathedral was, after his nemesis, the architect Antonio Gaudi, who had created the other unfinished cathedral, in Barcelona. This would have infuriated Justo.

One of Spain’s leading architects, Juan Carlos Arroyo, has promised to work on Justo’s cathedral for free, to bring it up to all of Spain’s legal building standards.

He sent in a team of structural engineers to assess the building and to everyone’s amazement found it totally sound.

Despite all those early years of abuse, Mejorada del Campo declared three days of mourning when he died. The mayor recognised that Justo alone was responsible for the massive amount of tourism they now receive.

The Messengers of Peace have applied to UNESCO to have the cathedral designated a building of cultural heritage.

RIP – Recycling Inspired Peasant


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