Sagrada Família (Holy Family) Basilica in Barcelona Is a Place of Awe and Conversion

Antoni Gaudí worked on the church for more than 40 of his 74 years of life, with the last 20 being devoted exclusively to it.

The interior of Sagrada Família in Barcelona
The interior of Sagrada Família in Barcelona (photo: Patti Maguire Armstrong)

Walking in the business district of Barcelona, Spain, my husband and I turned a corner and abruptly stopped. What suddenly appeared before our eyes — the Sagrada Família (Holy Family) Basilica — took our breath away.

The massive church is integrated into the tightly packed city so it did not come into view until we turned that corner. Across from burger joints, shops and a small grassy park, the other-worldly Gothic church is like no other, with elements of inspiration from its creator, architect Antoni Gaudí.

The exterior includes scaffolding because it is still a work in progress. Construction began in 1882 and might be completed in 2026, the centennial of Gaudí’s death. Pope Benedict XVI designated it as a minor basilica on Nov. 7, 2010, during his visit there, praising it as “a space of beauty, faith and hope which leads man to an encounter with him who is truth and beauty itself.

The completion of all 18 of the spires (nine are currently done) will make Sagrada Família the tallest church in the world —36 feet taller than the current record-holder, Ulm Minster, a Lutheran church in Germany that is 530 feet at its highest point. The 18 towers of Sagrada Familía include 12 for the apostles, four for the evangelists, one for the Virgin Mary and the tallest one, rising 566 feet high, for Jesus Christ.

Being the tallest tower gives glory to Jesus Christ, but Gaudí took care that it would not surpass Barcelona’s highest hill, Montjuïc, 581 feet above sea level. He felt architecture and nature should exist in harmony and that humanity should yield to God’s higher order.

In a League of its Own

Like all the historic churches we visited in the Azores, Spain and Portugal while on pilgrimage, art and architectural majesty bring visitors from around the world in awe at man’s efforts to glorify God. But this Sagrada Família is in a league of its own. Towers, intricate carvings and scenes — many of them unconventional, like an evergreen tree and an assortment of fruit and wildlife — adorn the exterior.

There are three faces of the exterior: The Nativity Façade dedicated to the birth of Jesus; the Passion Façade portraying Christ’s passion and resurrection, and the Glory Façade, dedicated to Christ’s eternal glory. Inside, the nave is lined with tree-like columns stretching to the sky into a stone canopy. The surrounding stained-glass windows dapple the walls with shimmering light to portray nature’s natural rhythms.

“When I walked in, it brought tears to my eyes,” Mary Kay Andreoni told me after touring the inside of the Church. She and her husband Armand from Park Ridge, Illinois, where they are parishioners at St. Paul of the Cross, were part of a group visiting historic churches in Spain. “When you walk in, the first thing is, your eyes go up,” she said. “I love the stained glass. It is so moving.”

Being a prior fan of Gaudí’s work, Andreoni explained, made it very exciting to witness his greatest creation first-hand. “He definitely brings nature into his work which is really beautiful, “she said. “Gaudí took Gothic architecture and turned it on its head. And he really thought outside of the box. I enjoy the medieval style with modern features. The sculptures look like people with expressions that are not all the same.”

Eric Fleishman is an architect who was visiting with his wife and young daughter from Wisconsin. “This is outstanding,” he shared with the Register. “I can’t put it into words. It’s incredible. Being an architect myself, Gaudí’s creativity is such an inspiration. I work on churches and schools so coming here is encouraging for what I do.”

Fleishman noted that part of the inspiration was to learn about Gaudí’s focus and faith in his work, trusting that the money would come. The church is not a parish church and takes no money from the diocese. It is completely funded by private donations and is now supported through the tours.

According to Architectural Record, there is an estimated annual income of $90 million from ticket sales and an annual construction budget of roughly $60 million. There are some 4.5 million visitors per year, which takes a toll on the city’s infrastructure, so the city made a 10-year agreement with the building’s Construction Junta, overseen by the Catholic Church, for $41 million to fund city projects.

Servant of God Antoni Gaudí

Gaudí lived from 1852–1926. When he died, less than 25% of the church was completed. He left models and instructions for others, knowing it would never be completed in his lifetime.

The original idea for the Sagrada Família came about through Josep Maria Bocabella, a bookseller who had founded the Spiritual Association of Devotees of St. Joseph and was inspired after a visit to Rome.

The crypt church located one level below the apse of the Basilica was the starting place for the project. Construction began on March 19, 1882, on the festival of St. Joseph, and was completed the following year.

Gaudí was actually the second architect on the project after the first one resigned in the second year due to internal disagreements. He took over as chief architect, far expanding the original vision of Gothic Revival to include Art Nouveau and inspirations reflecting his love of nature and his vibrant faith. His tomb is in the crypt church under the main one where my husband and I went to morning Mass.

The crypt church consists of four chapels. One is dedicated to the Virgin of Carmen (the site of Gaudí's tomb) and another to Our Lady of Montserrat, a devotion popular in Spain. (We attended Mass the morning of her feast, April 27, so a Rosary, other prayers and blessings followed.) There are also chapels to Christ, including one of Christ on the Cross.

There was much damage from the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, a decade after Gaudí’s death where many of his plans and models were destroyed. So, a certain amount of interpretation has been necessary among those who have studied Gaudí’s plans and continued the building. There was also damage from a fire started by an arsonist on April 19, 2011.

Gaudí worked on the church for more than 40 of his 74 years of life, with the last 20 being devoted exclusively to it. His devotion to the Catholic faith, which he practiced not so much in his youth, also grew fervent as he worked on the church. He was known to fast radically during Lent, sometimes on just lettuce and milk; his priest needed to tell him that he had a responsibility to take better care of his body to continue work on the church.

Gaudí’s death came about after he was hit by a tram on the streets of Barcelona on his way to confession. After his death, he became known as “God’s Architect.” He never married and lived in poverty in his studio, obsessed with the basilica.

In a letter supporting Gaudí’s cause for canonization dated Aug. 23, 1998, Cardinal Ricardo María Carles Gordó said that the magnificence of the Sagrada Família was a reflection of Gaudí’s faith. "Without a profound and continuous contemplation of the mysteries of faith, the façade of neither the Nativity nor any other could have been conceived as he wanted them to be, in such a moving way.”

Conversions to Catholicism have been attributed to the encounter with the church itself. One example is Jun Young Joo, a businessman from Busan, South Korea, who wrote about his experience after visiting Barcelona in 1998:

I was in the Temple of the Sagrada Família, as part of my route seeing the work of Gaudí around Barcelona. It is impossible to describe the impression left on my heart. I couldn’t help but bow my head before the solemnity, the sanctity and the greatness of the building. A deep feeling overpowered my heart. Through the works of Gaudí and the divine touch that they have, I was convinced of the existence of God. Although I have previously been a devoted Buddhist, I converted to Catholicism on returning to Busan, because of the deep impression caused by the works of Gaudí.
The Nativity Facade of Sagrada Família in Barcelona
The Nativity Facade of Sagrada Família in Barcelona(Photo: Patti Maguire Armstrong)