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The 90-Year old Man who is Building a Cathedral

Inspire, Sublimate

Justo Gallego Martínez has more than 50 years building, on his own, a cathedral in Mejorada del Campo, Madrid.

They say that in 1879, a postman named Ferdinand Cheval was walking home when he tripped on a stone. Even though it was not particularly special, that stone triggered an 8,000 square palace which he built with tiny stones and without the help of others.

In a similar combination of vision and diligence, Justo Gallego (Madrid, 1925) has spent more than 50 years building his own Cathedral in the vicinity of the Spanish capital.

The motive, far from the fortuitous stone that awoke Cheval’s desire to build, was a devastating tuberculosis that left Justo bedridden for months in a hospital. This willful and apparently fragile man left himself in the hands of God: if he was to give him his health back, if he allowed his life to continue until he reached old age, he promised to build a cathedral for him, a secret enclosure with the sole work of his inexperienced hands. Indeed, Justo lacked the most basic understanding of building work: the former monk of a Santa María de Huerta monastery, he was never able to finish his elementary studies because of the outburst of the Spanish Civil War. Nonetheless, this was not an obstacle for this man of faith who was able, in a short period of time, to obtain the necessary understanding of architecture and construction by reading ancient books on cathedrals and castles, some written in Latin.

Justo Gallego building the cathedral by hand

Justo’s prowess, visited every summer by two-thousand people, was featured in 2005 in the ad of a well-known soda company during an exhibition in MoMA New York, something that does not seem to affect the authentic ascetic who wakes up every day at six in the morning and works tirelessly until six in the evening. It is his cathedral, the conclusion of his promise, the only thing that concerns this octogenarian who sees the decline of his without having fulfilled his oath and his dream.

A well-known Chinese story tells the tale of a village at the edge of a mountain covered by a dark shadow, which ruined the crops and made the skin of their inhabitants pale. One day, the oldest man went to the mountain with the purpose of moving it. To do so he carried a small spoon in his hand. When the people of the village called him a madman, he answered: “someone has to start…”

Justo was also considered insane by his neighbors and he had to endure the lies of all those that mocked his grand intent. Similarly, the postman of Cheval was also considered by his contemporaries the “fool of the village”. Both paid little attention to his critics and were able to give shape, based on their perseverance and faith in themselves, to their dreams, materializing what anyone in the “right mind” would have dismissed as impossible or unthinkable.

What we find so enthralling about Justo’s cathedral is thinking about the first brick he lay one the land, in that first arch that he thought through without being overwhelmed, in that first glance over the empty space he imagined his promise materialized without shaking at the thought of all the years he would have to invest in his construction. When a visitor takes a picture of the cathedral they seem to understand the mysteries of time; it is not the building itself, which is fascinating, but imagining its slow growth, its patient and organic coming together.

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