His name was Justo Gallego, a former Trappist monk who spent the better part of the last six decades of his life single-handedly building a cathedral in Mejorada del Campo, a small town located on the outskirts of Madrid, Spain.
Mr. Gallego died last month within the walls of the very building he constructed, brick by brick. He was 96.
In an interview with The New York Times in 2017, the persistent and elderly builder said, “This is where my vocation has taken me and this is where I’m prepared to suffer, just as Jesus Christ taught us to suffer for others.”
One would be hard-pressed to find an equivalent of the unique combination of both man and mission here in the United States. Built without permits, plans, a trained architect or any public funding, Mr. Gallego was indifferent to both praise and criticism.
“I’ve not been building this to get money or fame, just as I’m not here to listen to people decide whether I’m mad or unique,” he told a reporter. “I’m fully responsible for my work and I’m not looking for the authorities to have any say.”
While Justo Gallego passed away inside a small apartment within the cathedral, the unusual project remains unfinished, and its fate remains somewhat uncertain.
Why would a man devote his life to such a project and endure, if not foster, such challenging circumstances?
As the story goes, Mr. Gallego spent eight years in a Trappist monastery, but was asked to leave at age 35 after contracting tuberculosis. Leadership feared he would infect his fellow monks. As he lay battling his illness, Gallego pledged to build a structure honoring God, should he be spared death. He also saw the work as a means to redeem the destruction of churches during the Spanish Civil War.
“I saw the Communists destroy all the churches here, with people laughing and dancing in the ruins,” he recalled. “But when you believe, you can then also rebuild with your own hands a beautiful new place.”
As the old saying goes, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” and Mr. Gallego’s style was unusual, to say the least. Misshapen bricks, old tires, metal food tins and other recycled materials were used in construction. Costs of anything purchased were covered by donations and proceeds from the sale of family farmland.
But no matter.
From the mishmash of the reassembled mixture rose over the decades a massive building featuring a 125-foot cupola and two adjacent cloisters.
Jorge Campo, Mejorada del Campo’s mayor, called the project “a work of genius built upon faith, perseverance and dedication, unshakable qualities that Justo kept throughout his life.”
What will come of the cathedral in light of Mr. Gallego’s passing? Just prior to his death, he donated the structure to an organization called “Messengers of Peace” – a group that operates an orphanage, along with centers for those with drug addictions. The group has pledged to bring the structure up to code and is committed to rebuilding anything deemed dangerous.
By all modern-day reasoning, Justo Gallego was an eccentric and even a misfit – a man tackling a project well beyond his means and skillset. In fact, he was often mocked and labeled by some to be mentally unstable. His family disagreed. They said his mind was sound – but his mindset was of another century, when and where brawn and the solitude of work were seen as a form of worship.
“The only plan is made in my head, drawn day by day,” Mr. Gallego admitted. “But Jesus Christ is the one who makes the real plans and decides what eventually should happen.”
As Christians, shouldn’t we also regularly feel out of place in this world, relying on God’s plans, not ours?
“The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps,” wrote Solomon (Proverbs 16:9). “Many are the plans in the minds of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand” (Proverbs 19:21).
The Lord may not be calling you to build a cathedral of used bricks and Bridgestone tires – but what seemingly impossible task has He put on your heart? It might take time to do it – and maybe even more time than you have left. But give it a go. Take a step and lay a brick, and then another – and you might just be shocked at how He will use your obedience to accomplish His plans.
Photo from Kike Rincón / Mdo.