91-Year-Old ‘Fool for Christ’ Builds Massive Church in Spain

“People get tired and bored because they have no ideals. They haven’t given themselves to Christ, the creator.”

The church of Justo Gallego Martínez in the Spanish village of Mejorada del Campo, 20 minutes from Madrid.
The church of Justo Gallego Martínez in the Spanish village of Mejorada del Campo, 20 minutes from Madrid. (photo: Credit: Dirección General de Turismo, Consejería de Economía e Innovación Tecnológica, Comunidad de Madrid, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Being practical or cautious can limit potential. Granted, those are not bad things, except when God wants us to trust him instead.

Take Noah. Only a nut case would build an ark in his front yard. Unless, that is, God told him to do it. He did and the rest is history.

Mother Angelica came from uneventful beginnings, but by stepping out in faith — often to the shock of those around her­­ — she ultimately founded Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN). “Be a do-do for Christ,” I once heard her say. She told us not to worry about imagined limits but to follow what God calls us to do.

Then there is Mother Teresa, a little nobody who started picking dying people up off the streets. The order she founded, the Missionaries of Charity, now has over 4,500 sisters in over 100 countries.

St. Paul told his disciples: “We are fools on Christ’s account, but you are wise in Christ…” (1 Corinthians 4:10). He would know. In his lifetime, St. Paul spread Christianity throughout the Mediterranean and to the Gentiles, laying the foundation of Christianity throughout the civilized world.


An Old Fool

There are endless people who have done great things as fools for Christ. That brings us to 91-year-old Justo Gallego Martínez of Mejorada del Campo, Spain. Although it’s still not complete, he’s done the unimaginable—built a massive church with very little help and not even a crane—as a gift to God and a witness to his faith.

Don Justo was born in 1925. The Spanish Civil War interrupted his school education. At the age of ten, he witnessed communist forces that were fighting Franco, shooting priests and ransacking the church in his village. Gallego became a Trappist monk in 1953 at the age of 27. After 8 years, he left the monastery because he had contracted tuberculosis.

Following a conversation with the Blessed Mother, Gallego recovered from his illness. He had promised God that if he recovered, he would build a shrine in honor of Our Lady of the Pillar to whom he had prayed. On October 1961, the feast day of Our Lady of the Pillar, Gallego began erecting a church dedicated to her.

Almost 56 years later, his project bears witness to the depth of his love for God and the Blessed Mother, and to the tenacity of his faith. The outer dimensions of the main building are 65x164 feet and the total above ground area is about half the length of a football field. Below the main building there is a crypt and adjacent there is a complex of minor chapels, cloisters, lodgings and a library. The dome of the main building, modeled after St. Peter's Basilica, is about 131 feet in height and 39 feet in diameter. There are spires, circular stained glass windows, and scenes from the Bible painted on both the interior and exterior.

The entire church is makeshift, creative, and breathtaking, using materials such as recycled oil drums, discarded food tubes and broken bricks. Gallego has worked mainly alone, although for almost 20 years, he has been assisted by a local named Angel Lopez Sanchez and has had some help from his six nephews and from occasional volunteers.

Some villagers complain that the structure is an eyesore, but others call it a beauty, happy for all the tourism is attracts. The local Catholic Church has never supported the project and does not want to inherit it.


Still Going Strong

Fifty-six years after beginning, the epic project is not complete. Gallego still works 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, taking only Sundays off. Six years ago, I came across a video about him and was in awe that an 85-year-old man could still work so hard. He can’t get much more done, I thought. I was wrong.

“My love of Christ means I will go to the ends of the world,” Gallego said in the video. “People get tired and bored because they have no ideals. They haven’t given themselves to Christ, the creator.”

Work is financed through financial donations and recycled building material. “I just do it; I can’t exactly say how it works,” he said. “It comes from deep within me…. Look around; you can see that it works. I just express what I have in my heart.”

Gallego has become a celebrity. He appeared in a commercial, 2 documentaries, and is the topic of many short videos and articles such as recent ones in The Architectural Review and another in BBC Travel article. Tourists come from all around to meet him and see his creation.

It does not bother Gallego that he’s unlikely to finish the building in his lifetime. “I’ll just get on with it and see how far I get,” he said. “It would be vain to want to finish it and be famous. I’ll get as far as I can; that’s it. “

In this video made last year, Gallego explained that he’s had no formal training in building or architecture and calls himself “just a laborer.” When he began, many people called him crazy. But now, he said, “They see what a man can do when he trusts in Christ.”