There are hundreds of magnificent cathedrals across Europe, so why do streams of visitors journey to a Madrid suburb to see an unfinished cathedral being built largely with discarded materials and without blueprints by an eccentric, elderly man?
My wife, two friends and I decided to see for ourselves, leaving behind the museums and tapas bars of Madrid. As we traveled to Mejorada del Campo, we wondered about the cathedral’s builder, 89-year-old Justo Gallego Martinez, better known as Don Justo. Is he a modern-day Don Quixote flailing at an impossible dream, or is he a visionary of extraordinary persistence, perhaps even a genius?
As we entered the cathedral, rays of sunlight poured through an unfinished dome, creating a sunburst of filtered light. Don Justo, a small, wiry man, greeted us with a wide smile. He told us that his first ambition — to become a Roman Catholic monk — was shattered when he contracted tuberculosis and had to leave the monastery. He prayed, meditated and finally came up with a plan to serve God. He would build a church, or better yet, a cathedral.
Don Justo was neither an architect nor engineer and lacked construction experience. No matter. He consulted books and photos of cathedrals and other famous buildings and began construction in 1961.
In that era, during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, Mejorada del Campo was a tiny farming community. No one paid much attention to construction that began without building permits.