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Spain’s scrap cathedral: A monk’s 60-year self-build labour of faith and devotion

About 20 km east of Madrid, in the small town of Mejorada del Campo, stands a building that testifies to a former monk's lifetime of devotion to the Catholic faith. Paul Burge explores the Don Justo Cathedral, a religious edifice like no other.

Spain's scrap cathedral: A monk's 60-year self-build labour of faith and devotion
Don Justo's Cathedral in Mejorada del Campo, Madrid. Photos: Paul Burge

The structure has been built by 95-year-old former monk, Don Justo Gallego Martinez, using nothing but recycled, scavenged and donated materials giving the building chaotic, eclectic and perplexing, if not impressive style.


Don Justo pictured here at the age of 73 in August 1999. Archive photo: AFP

Visitors are free to explore, stepping over bags of cement, buckets and tools which are strewn across the two-floor monument. Downstairs there is a shrine to Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. Chillingly Don Justo has already also dug his own grave in the basement, where he will finally be laid to rest at the heart of his labour of faith and devotion.

Don Justo, as he is known, is 95 years old. The cathedral still needs at least ten years' work, years that its creator simply doesn’t have. Yet, such is his devotion that he still works on its construction every day, except on Sundays of course. You may catch a glimpse of him in his dusty blue overalls, white shirt and trademark red beret. But as the notices pinned to the wall advise, he is not open to speaking to members of the public.

What inspired Don Justo to build it?

After eight years in a Trappist order at Soria‘s Santa Maria de la Huerta monastery, Don Justo Gallego Martinez was ordered to leave, for fear of infecting the other monks with tuberculosis that he had been diagnosed with.

When his mother died in 1963 and bequeathed to him a large plot of land, including an olive grove in the center of the town, Gallego had an idea. If he would never again be allowed to enter a Catholic church as an ordained member of the faith, then he would express his devotion in a magnificent way. He would build his own church. In fact he would build his own Cathedral from scratch and make a shrine to “Our Lady of the Pillar”, or Nuestra Señora del Pilar.

The future of the cathedral

Set amongst monotonous 1960s apartment blocks, the frame of the huge structure, with its 50-meter-tall dome modeled on St. Peter’s in Rome, towers over the town of Mejorada del Campo. Like the cathedrals of old, it will not reach completion during Don Justo’s lifetime.

What will happen to the building after Gallego’s death remains an open question and its future is uncertain. No one has yet stepped up to take over the project, nor is his cathedral recognized by the Catholic Church. What is more, Don Justo never applied for planning permission to build the cathedral and the structure does not conform to any building regulations.

There are rumous that it could be pulled down after Don Justo passes away but there is a concerted campaign to preserve it.

How to get there

Catedral de Justo is located in Mejorada del Campo, a small town just 20km from Madrid. To get there, there are two public buses from the centre: Avenida de América (line 282) and Conde de Casal (line 341). 

The bus stop in Mejorada del Campo is called Calle de Arquitecto Antoni Gaudí and is located right in front of the cathedral. However, going by car is a better option, so you can continue your day-trip to Alcalá de Heneres, Cervantes’ hometown, which is about half an hour away.

Listen to the When in Spain podcast episode for an audio tour around the cathedral with Paul Burge. HERE

Paul Burge is a former BBC journalist who moved from Oxford, UK to Madrid in 2013 where he now hosts the highly entertaining When in Spain a weekly podcast show about life in Madrid and beyond.  Follow Paul's observations and advice about living in Spain on FacebookInstagram, Twitter and his new YouTube channel.

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IN IMAGES: Spain’s ‘scrap cathedral’ lives on after creator’s death

For over 60 years, former monk Justo Gallego almost single-handedly built a cathedral out of scrap materials on the outskirts of Madrid. Here is a picture-based ode to his remarkable labour of love.

IN IMAGES: Spain's 'scrap cathedral' lives on after creator's death
File photo taken on August 3, 1999 shows Justo Gallego Martinez, then 73, posing in front of his cathedral. Photo: ERIC CABANIS / AFP

The 96-year-old died over the weekend, but left the unfinished complex in Mejorada del Campo to a charity run by a priest that has vowed to complete his labour of love.

Gallego began the project in 1961 when he was in his mid-30s on land inherited from his family after a bout of tuberculosis forced him to leave an order of Trappist monks.

Today, the “Cathedral of Justo” features a crypt, two cloisters and 12 towers spread over 4,700 square metres (50,600 square feet), although the central dome still does not have a cover.

He used bricks, wood and other material scavenged from old building sites, as well as through donations that began to arrive once the project became better known.

A woman prays at the Cathedral of Justo on November 26, 2021. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
A woman prays at the Cathedral of Justo on November 26, 2021. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
 

The building’s pillars are made from stacked oil drums while windows have been cobbled and glued together from shards of coloured glass.

“Recycling is fashionable now, but he used it 60 years ago when nobody talked about it,” said Juan Carlos Arroyo, an engineer and architect with engineering firm Calter.

Men work at the Cathedral of Justo on November 26, 2021 in Mejorada del Campo, 20km east of Madrid.
Men work at the Cathedral of Justo on November 26, 2021 in Mejorada del Campo, 20km east of Madrid. Photo: (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)

The charity that is taking over the project, “Messengers of Peace”, hired the firm to assess the structural soundness of the building, which lacks a permit.

No blueprint

“The structure has withstood significant weather events throughout its construction,” Arroyo told AFP, predicting it will only need some “small surgical interventions”.

Renowned British architect Norman Foster visited the site in 2009 — when he came to Spain to collect a prize — telling Gallego that he should be the one getting the award, Arroyo added.

Religious murals on a walls of Justo's cathedral. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
Religious murals on a walls of Justo’s cathedral. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
 

The sturdiness of the project is surprising given that Gallego had no formal training as a builder, and he worked without a blueprint.

In interviews, he repeatedly said that the details for the cathedral were “in his head” and “it all comes from above”.

Builders work on the dome of the Cathedral of Justo on November 26th. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
Builders work on the dome of the Cathedral of Justo on November 26th. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
 

The complex stands in a street called Avenida Antoni Gaudi, named after the architect behind Barcelona’s iconic Sagrada Familia basilica which has been under construction since 1883.

But unlike the Sagrada Familia, the Cathedral of Justo Gallego as it is known is not recognised by the Roman Catholic Church as a place of worship.

Visit gaze at the stained glass and busts in of the cathedral's completed sections. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
Visit gaze at the stained glass and busts in of the cathedral’s completed sections. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
 

‘Worth visiting’

Father Angel Garcia Rodriguez, the maverick priest who heads Messengers of Peace, wants to turn Gallego’s building into an inclusive space for all faiths and one that is used to help the poor.

“There are already too many cathedrals and too many churches, that sometimes lack people,” he said.

“It will not be a typical cathedral, but a social centre where people can come to pray or if they are facing difficulties,” he added.

A photo of Justo Gallego Martinez on display at his cathedral following his passing. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
A photo of Justo Gallego Martinez on display at his cathedral following his passing. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
 

Father Angel is famous in Spain for running a restaurant offering meals to the homeless and for running a church in central Madrid where pets are welcome and the faithful can confess via iPad.

Inside the Cathedral of Justo, volunteers continued working on the structure while a steady stream of visitors walked around the grounds admiring the building in the nondescript suburb.

“If the means are put in, especially materials and money, to finish it, then it will be a very beautiful place of worship,” said Ramon Calvo, 74, who was visiting the grounds with friends.

FIND OUT MORE: How to get to Justo’s Cathedral and more amazing images

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