I don’t know about you, but I love a good mystery. Crop circles really get my blood pumping! The Bermuda Triangle and Stonehenge intrigue me. I desperately want to believe in the Loch Ness monster. So, when a mystery happens to coincide with my love for the West, it’s enough to make me do a happy dance! That’s how I feel about the mystery of the Loretto Chapel Staircase in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
American Gothic with a French Accent
In 1872, the Sisters of Loretto, a Roman Catholic convent in Santa Fe, commissioned a new convent chapel. French architect, Antoine Mouly, designed the chapel and based it on one of the most beautiful Gothic cathedrals in Paris, Sainte-Chapelle. It had flying buttresses, soaring spires and stunning imported stained glass windows.
The construction of the chapel was completed in 1878, but there was a problem. The architect died before completion and the builders realized that there was a steeply elevated choir loft that was inaccessible to anyone (other than a choir of angels or, or perhaps the Flying Nun!) No architectural plans had ever been drawn for stairs, and there was no architect to consult, so the carpenters all agreed that a ladder would have to suffice. There was simply no space available in the small chapel to construct a standard staircase that rose 20 feet. A ladder wasn’t unheard of in early churches, but the Sisters of Loretto weren’t too keen on the idea. Climbing a ladder in a nuns’ habit could have been a recipe for disaster, so the Sisters did that which they do so well . . . they sought wisdom from above.
Miracle Worker or Stair Master?
According to legend, the Sisters of Loretto prayed a novena to St. Joseph. Who better to turn to than the patron saint of carpenters? They prayed diligently for eight days. On the ninth and final day of the novena, a poor looking stranger appeared at the chapel. He carried a toolbox and offered to build a staircase for the Sisters. The nuns didn’t ask to see his references or his design portfolio. They recognized “a sign” when they saw one!
The mysterious stranger reportedly told the nuns that he needed complete privacy to create the new staircase, and he locked himself away in the chapel for about six months. The wood used in the staircase was not native to the area, though no one ever reported seeing wood delivered to the chapel. In fact, there weren’t even any reports of the builder being spotted coming or going from the chapel during the entire building period.
When the work was completed, it is said that the stranger simply gathered up his tools and departed. The Mother Superior wasn’t even able to pay him for his work. The Sisters of Loretto offered a reward for the identity of the mystery carpenter, but it was never claimed. Many concluded that the carpenter was St. Joseph, himself. In fact, the chapel is often called, “St. Joseph’s Chapel”.
Stairway to Heaven
The identity (or lack thereof) of the carpenter isn’t the only thing miraculous about the staircase. The staircase ascends twenty feet to the choir loft and is said to contain no nails—only wooden pegs. It was constructed through the use of a square, a saw and warm water. The design features thirty-three steps that make two 360-degree turns, with no visible means of center support. In 1887, a railing was added and the outer spiral was fastened to an adjacent pillar, but prior to that, it really did appear to be a stairway to heaven.
Flight of Fancy
Of course, some people claim to have solved the mystery of the Loretto staircase. The grandson of a German woodworker once claimed that his grandfather constructed the stairs, though he had no proof. In the 1990’s, author Mary Jean Straw Cook claimed that the builder was Francois-Jean Rochas, an architect who was killed in 1895. Cook found a document, which named Rochas as the builder of “the handsome staircase in the Loretto Chapel”.
As for the miraculous design, that is said to be a matter of physics, rather than miracles. The explanations include lots of talk about joists, stringers and other things that fail to thrill my soul. I’m not liking the idea of reason in this matter . . . I prefer the idea of the miracle.
Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life
Apparently, I’m not the only one who wants to believe in miracles. The staircase has been the subject of numerous articles, films and TV shows. In 1998, Barbara Hershey starred as the Mother Superior of the Loretto Chapel in a television movie, “The Staircase”. “Unsolved Mysteries” re-enacted the story of the Loretto Chapel in an episode entitled, “Miracle Staircase”.
In 1968 the Loretto Convent closed down, the property was sold and deconsecrated. Today, the Loretto Chapel is owned by a private company and serves as a museum and wedding chapel.
Yes, I know that there are perfectly logical explanations for many of life’s mysteries, but sometimes I just don’t want to hear them! If you ask me, miracles are perfectly logical explanations, in their own special way.
Here’s an interesting little video about the chapel, I think that you’ll enjoy it!
Happy Trails, y’all!