Could Antoni Gaudi be the first sainted architect?

A campaign to make an architect a saint is gathering momentum after claims that a building he created can cure illness – and in more than a century of construction no worker has suffered serious injury.

The campaign to make Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia designer Antoni Gaudi a saint was launched more than 20 years ago, when a priest suggested to the Catalan architect, Jose Manuel Almuzara, that Gaudi would be a good candidate for beatification – a stepping stone on the way to sainthood.

Almuzara formed the Association for the Beatification of Antoni Gaudi, and began work on the papers required to put his name forward to the Vatican for consideration – but in order for a person to be sainted a miracle needs to be attributed to them.

Now, the archbishop of Barcelona, Lluis Martinez Sistach, says a miracle of sorts has occurred.

“From 1882 until now there has been no serious accident among builders working at such great heights,” he said. “Nor among millions and millions of visitors to the temple under construction.”

He added that the Sagrada Familia has been the scene of some unexpected conversions among the international group of craftspeople who have been working on the building.

But what the pro-beatification committee is really looking for is a medical cure – one that leaves doctors astounded.

A few cases have come close. The first came to light about five years ago, when a woman with a perforated retina regained her sight. She was an artist from Gaudi’s home town of Reus, and she said she had been praying for help. Her ophthalmologist said her recovery was completely exceptional.

A second example concerned a man with a tumour in his leg, who recovered in hospital without surgery. But there was some disagreement among the patient’s doctors – some thought it was more exceptional than others.

Gaudi was born in Catalonia in 1852 into a wealthy family and a life filled – according to a biography – with “horses, opera, and the best restaurants”. By the time he graduated from the architecture department of the University of Barcelona, he had begun to formulate his own visual language, inspired by pictures of pre-Islamic buildings from the Nile delta.

When the director of the school of architecture, Elies Rogent, awarded Gaudi his degree, he said that he didn’t know if he was giving it to a “genius or a madman”.

All his life Gaudi was concerned about social issues. He helped design the progressive Colonia Guell, a workers’ community based around a mill, which included a hospital and schools, as well as Spain’s first football stadium. After he started work on the Sagrada Familia in 1883, Gaudi built schools for the children of the workers and parishioners.

Among his eccentric habits was his food. For lunch Gaudi would eat just a few lettuce leaves dipped in milk. When he was in his early 40s, he nearly died fasting, and only began to eat again when a priest reminded him of his mission to build the Sagrada. He was to devote more than four decades of his life to it, turning down lucrative contracts in Paris and New York. When the project was in danger of going bankrupt Gaudi used his own savings.

His last few months were spent completely immersed in his work, living next to his workshop inside the church. He would venture on to the streets to beg for money for the building work, which has always been funded entirely by public donations. When he was knocked down by a tram in June 1926, it was initially thought that the gaunt man in shabby clothes was a beggar. Gaudi died three days later, leaving his remaining money to the project.