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BARCELONA (Reuters) - For decades tourists have visited the twisting spires of Barcelona's iconic Sagrada Familia church, but 128 years after construction began Catholic faithful will worship there for the first time on Sunday.
Pope Benedict XVI will celebrate Mass to give his official blessing to the church designed by architect Antoni Gaudi, whose sculptural masterpieces dot the city in the region of Catalonia.
The pope consecrates Sagrada Familia during a visit to northern Spain where on Saturday he joins pilgrims at the shrine to St. James, Spain's patron saint, in Santiago de Compostela.
While work is not scheduled to finish for many more years on the intricate and colorful Sagrada Familia, enough has been done to welcome the pontiff, including installing last minute stained-glass windows.
Jordi Bonet Armengol, chief architect of the cathedral and seventh successor to Gaudi, hopes the pope's visit will provide the boost needed to finish the work.
Under instructions from Gaudi, who died in 1926, construction is funded by private donations and visitors' fees.
Protests ranging from gays who are against the Catholic Church's stance on homosexuality, to residents complaining about the disruption and cost of the event are expected to greet the pope when he steps out of Gaudi's masterpiece on Sunday.
But devout Catholics said they were excited about the consecration.
"There are all kinds of protests but we live in a democracy and should let believers enjoy this," said Petita Martin, 68, who was disappointed she would not be able to attend the Mass, but planned to greet the pope along the route of his procession on Sunday.
"Sagrada Familia is a jewel and great propaganda for Barcelona," she said.
Bonet eagerly awaits the tour he will give the pope of the ornate church.
"He will bring a message of spirituality and it's a stimulus to finish the work... The building shows that through art we can achieve spirituality that people need so much."
A lot remains to be done to complete the church, including erecting the central 170-meter tower. But Bonet swore it would not take another century -- if visitors continue to be generous.
In the past, the tourist flow was lower and sometimes the church had trouble paying workers, said Bonet.
He marveled that Sagrada Familia now pulls in up to 10,000 visitors each day to see a building not yet finished.
When completed, Gaudi's elaborate design will feature 18 towers dedicated to the 12 apostles, four evangelists, Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
The intricate sculptures detailing Jesus's life made the work much more labor intensive than first envisaged, especially as it grew higher into the sky. At present they are partly being carried out by Japanese sculptor Etsuro Sotoo who has worked on the building for many years.
According to Bonet, when Gaudi was asked whether the Sagrada Familia was the last of the great churches to be built, he replied "No, it's the first in the second series of great cathedrals."
"The temple is unique in the world. It's the work of a genius, who was also an exemplary Christian," said Barcelona Archbishop Lluis Martinez Sistach.
While in Barcelona, the pope is due to address the crowd in the local language, Catalan, a coup for the region which has fought to maintain cultural and economic independence from Spain.
Construction of a rail tunnel under the church had sparked fears it could harm the architecture, but so far the tunnel has not caused damage.
After consecration, the church will begin holding regular masses with a capacity for 9,000 church-goers. Fewer will attend on Sunday due to security measures.
Editing by Fiona Ortiz