BARCELONA, Spain, Nov. 17 (UPI) -- Nearly 125 years after the first stone was laid, Barcelona's Sagrada Familia represents the last great Roman Catholic edifice being built on a continent where religious observance is tumbling, and the Vatican's preachings for many appear obsolete.
Today, it soars above this Mediterranean cityscape, a whimsical confection of airy bell -towers, triumphant angels and jewel-colored pinnacles.
But rather than a forsaken symbol of bygone devotion, the Sagrada Familia is Spain's most visited tourist attraction -- even as its original architect, Antoni Gaudi, is on a fast track to sainthood.
Nobody seems to know exactly when the church will be completed; estimates range up to 30 years or more. And until recently, nobody seemed to care.
"It's more interesting to work on it than to finish it," said Gaudi biographer Joan Bassegoda, one of the leading experts on the architect and his creations. "For the people of Barcelona, the continuity of Sagrada Familia is very important."
But now, the church is at the center of a brewing dispute between Barcelona's Archbishopric and the construction committee. The Sagrada Familia is formally described as an "expiatory temple." Its multimillion dollar budget is funded entirely by tourist ticket sales and the donations of Christian believers.
Barcelona Archbishop Lluis Martinez Sistach, the committee's nominal head, wants a chunk of the money to help fund poorer parishes and the indigent.
"We are insisting that a good part of the money that is raised through tourism -- some 20 million euros (about $23.4 million) -- goes to paying the poor parishes and poor people in the city," said Father Manuel Serra, who spoke on behalf of the Archbishop's office.
"We've gotten criticism from people who ask how the church can justify so much money in donations for Sagrada Familiar and tie it to the humility of the Gospel of Jesus Christ," he added.
The construction committee argues the money should be entirely dedicated to completing the church. That, a spokeswoman for the Sagrada project said, is what "Antoni Gaudi wanted."
The controversy is only the latest roadblock in the tumultuous tale of the church's construction.
In 1883, Gaudi took over the Sagrada Familia project after a dispute between the church's original architect and its founder. Then 31, the native Catalonian was already considered a brilliant artist who drew his inspiration from nature and, soon after, from God.
"He found everything in nature," Bassegoda said. "He would look at an insect or a duck and find interesting forms that he would transfer into architecture."
"After Gaudi, there were no Gaudi schools," Bassegoda added. "Because Gaudi always said, 'Don't copy me, copy nature.'"
Gaudi was also not concerned about completing Sagrada Familia. Indeed, he assumed the project would not be finished during his lifetime. When pressed, he would reportedly point skyward remarking, "my client is not in a hurry."
Once branded as a dandy, Gaudi reportedly experienced a religious awakening the very year he began working on the Sagrada Familia. He lived a simple life, spending his last years working and living at the Sagrada construction site.
So humble and disheveled was Gaudi's appearance that taxi drivers allegedly refused to take him to a nearby hospital when he was hit by a street trolley in 1926. He died three days later, at age 74.
The following years were dark ones for the uncompleted edifice.
During the Spanish Civil war, Communists set fire to Gaudi's studio, which held many of his designs and notes for the church. Still some critics lamented the Sagrada Familia had not been destroyed altogether. That included British writer George Orwell, who once called it "one of the most hideous buildings in the world.
"He inspires strong feelings," admitted Eduard Sole, president of the Gaudi & Barcelona Club, which today counts 15,000 Gaudi fans worldwide. "Either you find his works incredible, or incredibly ugly."
After World War II, the bishop of Barcelona named a new team of architects to carry on Gaudi's work. The church's latest chief architect, Jordi Bonet, is the son of a member of the postwar team. His brother, Lluis, is head priest at Sagrada Familia.
On a recent afternoon, Bonet took a reporter up to the church's unfinished roof, pointing out a glowing brown-and-yellow stained glass window, and ticking off half a different stones used to construct the edifice. Under current projections, the church's nave is expected to open for service for the first time in 2008.
"Gaudi had always wanted the artists who succeeded him to follow his spirit and ideas," said Bonet, who leads a team of 24 architects, "but he also gave them the liberty to make their own creations."
Outside, English tourist James Bullen stood among a cluster of visitors gazing at the biblical figures and leaf-like curls decorating the church's nativity facade. "It's breathtaking," said Bullen, 45. "I've never seen a church like it before. It does integrate nature in stone."
"We see the Sagrada Familia as the great evangelizing tool in the city of Barcelona," said Father Serra of Barcelona's Catholic church. "This church is a symbol of the city, of Catalonia, at a time when religious symbols are difficult to accept."
The Vatican is currently reviewing a bid to make Gaudi a saint. Father Serra says Barcelona's Bishopric anticipates a favorable answer as early as next year.
But like his architecture, Gaudi's prospective sainthood is stirring debate. Critics suggest it may undermine his worldly achievements.
Others, like Bassegoda the scholar, are indifferent. "Gaudi made architecture a religion, and considered religion as architecture," Bassegoda said. "So whether Gaudi becomes a saint or not is not important."