Justo Gallego Martínez was born into an agricultural family in Mejorada del Campo on Sept. 20, 1925. At 27, he joined a monastery in the northern province of Soria, but was ordered to leave eight years later after he had caught tuberculosis and risked contaminating the other monks.
After recovering in a Madrid hospital, he returned to his hometown and decided to turn his family plot of land into a place of worship. He laid the first stone in 1961. The project, he said, was driven in part by his desire to thank God for his having survived his illness. But it was also an act of faith, he said, to make amends for the desecration of churches that he witnessed during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.
“I saw the Communists destroy all the churches here, with people laughing and dancing in the ruins,” Mr. Gallego said. “But when you believe, you can then also rebuild with your own hands a beautiful new place.”
He financed the construction with donations and by selling some of his family’s farmland. He also used his earnings from appearances he made in a publicity campaign for a beverage company in 2005. He made no architectural drawings. “The only plan is made in my head, drawn day by day,” he said.
Still, he talked about admiring medieval castles and the Romanesque style. Jo Farb Hernández, professor emeritus in the department of art and art history at San Jose State University in California, was fascinated by the way the cathedral took shape.
“I experienced it as an unlikely combination of a decrepit medieval monastery, a crammed and chaotic salvage yard and a crumbling, dusty set from the futuristic movie ‘Blade Runner,’” Professor Hernández said. “Yet slowly, over the years, I saw sculptures mounted, paintings completed, windows installed, apertures secured and areas cleaned and cleared.”