For more than 50 years, an eccentric former monk has been piecing together a grand cathedral brick by brick, completely alone and by hand. On an avenue in the Spanish town of Mejorada del Campo, a suburb 13 miles east of Madrid, a massive, unfinished structure is the life’s work of Justo Gallego Martinez, known as Don Justo. He began the project in 1963 without construction permits, blueprints, or money—just faith. The “principal source of enlightenment has been, before anything, Christ’s evangelism,” he recently explained.
Today, the cathedral’s builder is 88 years old, and the towering Nuestra Señora del Pilar has spread to 91,500 square feet. Martinez builds according to a vision kept only in his head, using a mix of donated and recycled materials in a style that draws from such incongruous inspirations as St. Peter’s Basilica and the U.S. White House.
A thin, white-haired man with a red woolen skullcap, he rises before 4 a.m. to gather discarded materials like bricks and tiles from nearby factories and junkyards. At 6 a.m., he brings them to the site to begin his 10-hour workday. Martinez’s only downtime is a short break for a small lunch because, as he says, “if you eat too much, you do not work much.” In the cold of winter, he keeps his work limited to the structure’s innards; otherwise, his advanced age doesn’t stop him from doing much, including scaling the massive complex’s jerry-rigged scaffolding.
So far, after 51 years of work, the cathedral has a library, cloisters, priests’ homes, a baptistry, a crypt, and a towering 200-foot central dome, which took 20 years to build, along with two-dozen smaller towers. An ad hoc building style utilizes old car wheels to shape arches, highway paving blocks to make the plaza, and empty oil drums stacked inside columns. Martinez calls the practice “natural architecture.” But, the work is far from complete: thousands of windows await decoration, spiral staircases lead to nowhere, and the floors and giant dome are still uncovered.
Not only does the devoted creator lack an architecture or construction background, but his elementary education was interrupted by the Spanish Civil War. In the decade after the war, he joined a Trappist monastery, but was forced to leave after contracting tuberculosis. Two years later, after he made an unexpected recovery, Martinez began constructing the building on his family’s farmland. “I wanted to continue in the monastery, but Divine Providence decided to bring me here,” he told Parade magazine in 1987.
Martinez relies mainly on donations to pay for the construction, but he does the labor virtually single-handedly. He lives nearby with his sister and accepts occasional help from his six nephews and a few dedicated volunteers. A group of German priests makes an annual summer pilgrimage to lend a hand, and a recently formed volunteer group organizes a team to pitch in at the cathedral one day a month. Otherwise, the elderly monk toils solo during long days scavenging and building.
Martinez’s methodology is far from kosher. According to his family, when the project first began, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco approved of the ambitious man’s work. But when Franco’s regime fell, the independent-minded contractor fell out of favor with the local government. “For me, papers are a waste of time,” he once told a Spanish television channel.
Though the structure fails to meet construction standards, it and its legendary creator have become an attraction, drawing gawking visitors to town. Martinez’s labor has been documented in a short film called The Madman and the Cathedral and, most recently, photographer Susana Girón followed the elderly man for 100 days, shooting his daily routine. Local bureaucrats and townsfolk, who once referred to Martinez as the “mad monk” or “el loco de la iglesia,” have warmed up to him in the wake of this attention. Now a minor celebrity, the aging one-man construction team plans to work until he no longer can, and then he will bequeath the Nuestra Señora del Pilar to the town’s Catholic bishop in the hopes it will be used as a functioning church. Whether or not Martinez ever sees his life’s work completed, his only regret will be having not done more.
“If I lived my life again, I’d build this church again, only bigger. Twice the size,” Martinez once told the BBC. “Because, for me, this is an act of faith.”