In a small town near Madrid, a 90-year-old man labors every day on a soaring house of prayer to which he has dedicated over half a century of his life.
It sounds like a pious legend from the early Middle Ages: A monastic postulant contracts tuberculosis before taking final vows, and is expelled from the monastery after eight years. On his sickbed, the former monastic takes a vow to the Blessed Virgin, if he is healed, to raise a shrine in her honor. After he recovers, he spends the rest of his life — over half a century — building, by hand and mostly single-handedly, an immense, soaring house of prayer comparable to the grandest medieval cathedrals.
Except it isn’t ancient history. The story is unfolding today. Now 90 years old, former Trappist Justo Galledgo Martínez, also known as Don Justo, labors every day at his still-unfinished cathedral, situated a dozen miles from Madrid in the town of Mejorada del Campo, where Don Justo was born.
Astonishingly, Justo has no architectural training or prior construction experience. Prior to entering the Monastery of Santa María de Huerta in the provice of Soria, he was a farmer. Justo works with mostly recycled or donated material, building on land owned by his family.
He started construction in 1961 on October 12, the feast day of Our Lady of the Pillar, to whom he had prayed. For at least the first two decades, he did virtually all the work himself. For the last 20 years, Justo has had an assistant, Angel Lopez, along with occasional assistants from Spain and even Germany.
His vision for the edifice has changed over the years, at times taking inspiration from St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, the White House, and various Spanish churches and castles. In Justo’s heart his cathedral is dedicated to Nuestra Señora del Pilar, but locals call it la Catedral de Justo, “Justo’s Cathedral.”
Justo’s single-minded dedication are so extraordinary and uncompromising that it can’t help raising profound existential questions about the meaning of life.
On the one hand, Justo has created extraordinary beauty: something beautiful for God. For Justo, his cathedral shows what one man can accomplish who puts his faith in Christ.
On the other hand, it is certainly possible to say that Justo has wasted his life. His cathedral is unfinished, and may never be finished.
What’s more, it may never be put to its intended use. Justo’s cathedral is not affiliated with the diocese of Alcalá de Henares (so it’s not really a cathedral at all, since what makes a church a cathedral is its special association with the diocesan bishop).
“It’s not a cathedral and it never will be,” a diocesan spokesman said 13 years ago. “It’s not necessary and it needs the kind of investment that the diocese just can’t make.”
Justo’s final wish is to be buried in the crypt of his cathedral. But even that, if Church laws are followed, would require that the crypt be consecrated for Catholic burial.
Obviously Justo’s cathedral has great value and meaning to him. He has lived his life, it would seem, exactly as he wanted to. Many solitary artists, writers, and composers have devoted themselves to their work for a lifetime with less to show for it.
Some artists are eventually “discovered,” often after their deaths, and becomes influential; in that case we may say they are “successes,” though they never knew it. Or perhaps their work is never widely appreciated or even widely known. Does that make them “failures,” if their work was rewarding and fulfilling throughout their life?
Some would consider Justo mentally ill. The same might be said for many great artists; perhaps even some great saints. He might also be a genius, to have achieved what he has with no training.
The writer Malcolm Gladwell has argued that geniuses are made, not born; for those with natural ability, according to Gladwell, what differentiates the great from the good or the adequate is simply deliberate practice — at least 10,000 hours of it. Justo has certainly invested far more time than that.
The questions raised by Justo’s life are raised to varying extents by others who dedicate themselves wholly to any life’s work. Justo had wanted to be a monk, and those who embrace consecrated religious life pursue God to the exclusion of many things in life. The monastery rejected Justo, but he has lived his life with monastic zeal and ardor.