This is the miraculous staircase of Saint Joseph at Loretto Chapel in Santa Fé, New Mexico. U.S.A., which, after 134 years since it was built in 1878, still confounds architects, engineers, and master craftsmen in the physics of its construction and remains inexplicable in view of its baffling design considerations. The unusual helix shaped spiral staircase has two complete 360° turns, stands 20 feet high up to the choir loft and has no newel (center pole) to support it as most circular stairways have. Its entire weight rests solely on its base and against the choir loft – a mystery that defies all laws of gravity, it should have crashed to the floor the moment anyone stepped on it, and yet it is still in use daily for over a hundred years. The risers of the 33 steps are all of the same height. Made of an apparently extinct wood species, it was constructed with only square wooden pegs without glue or nails. At the time it was built, the stairway had no banisters. These were added 10 years later in 1888 by Phillip A. Hesch at the Sisters’ request.
|Scale model simulation of how the Staircase looked
between 1877-1887 before the banisters were added
There are four mysteries that surround the spiral staircase in the Loretto Chapel: the identity of its builder; the physics of its construction which defies all laws of gravity; origin of the type of wood used which does not exist in the entire region or anywhere near it; and the staircase which has 33 steps, the age of Jesus Christ.
Over the years, many have flocked to the Loretto Chapel to see the Miraculous Staircase. The case had been investigated and studied. The staircase has been the subject of many articles, and re-enacted in TV specials, and movies including “Unsolved Mysteries” and the 1998 television movie entitled “The Staircase”, starring Barbara Hershey and William Petersen.
According to the accounts of Mother Magdalen, Mother Superior of the Sisters of Loretto, when the Chapel was completed in 1878, there was no way to access the choir loft twenty-two feet above. Local carpenters were summoned to address the problem, but all concluded that access to the loft would have to be via ladder as a staircase would interfere with the interior space of the small Chapel. The Sisters of Loretto made a novena to Saint Joseph, the Patron Saint of Carpenters, and on the ninth and final day of prayer, a gray-haired man came to the convent on a donkey with a toolbox and approached Mother Magdalen. He asked if he might try to help the Sisters by building a stairway but he needed total privacy. Mother gave her consent gladly, and he set to work and locked himself in the chapel for three months. The only tools he had were a saw, a hammer, a T-square, and a few tubs of water for soaking the wood to make it pliable.
When the staircase was completed, the carpenter disappeared without pay or thanks. The Loretto Sisters ran an advertisement in a local newspaper in search for the man but found no trace of him. They offered a reward for the identity of the man, but it was never claimed. But Mother Magdalen and her community of Sisters and students knew that the stairway was Saint Joseph’s answer to their fervent prayers. Many were convinced that the humble carpenter was none other than Saint Joseph himself, as his silent, prayerful labors were precisely the virtues one would expect of the foster-Father of Our Divine Lord.
One of the most baffling things about the stairway, however, is the perfection of the curves of the stringers. The wood is spliced along the sides of the stringers with nine splices on the outside and seven on the inside, each fitted with the greatest precision. Each piece is perfectly curved. How this was done in the 1870’s by a single man with only the most primitive tools is inexplicable to modern architects. Many experts have tried to identify the wood and surmise where it came from, but no one has ever been able to give a satisfactory answer to this mystery. The treads were constantly walked on for over a hundred years since the stairway was built, but showed signs of wear only on the edges. The wood was identified as an “edge-grained fir of some sort”, but others say it is a long-leaf yellow pine, but the hard-wearing wood definitely did not come from New Mexico. Where the mysterious carpenter got this wood remains a mystery up to this day.
Brief History of the Chapel of Loretto
In 1610, the Spanish Catholic conquistadors and missionaries founded La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Assisi, or Royal City of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi, known today as Santa Fé, the capital of New Mexico. It was occupied by Indians, Mexicans, and Spanish and was under Spanish control until a war which placed this area under the rule of the New Republic of Mexico for 25 years. Later, as a result of the US victory in the Mexican war, this southwest area was ceded to the United States in 1848. At the end of the Old Santa Fe Trail stands the Loretto Chapel.
The history of the Loretto Chapel began when Bishop Jean Baptisite Lamy was appointed Vicar-Apostolic by the Church to the New Mexico Territory in 1850. Bishop Lamy, seeking to spread the Catholic faith and bring an educational system to this new territory, began a letter writing plea for priests, brothers and nuns to preach and teach. In 1852, the Sisters of Loretto responded to Lamy’s pleas and sent seven sisters and opened the Academy of Our Lady of Light (Loretto) in 1853. The campus covered a square block with 10 buildings. Through tuition’s for the girls schooling, donations, and from the sisters own inheritances from their families, they built their school and chapel. Sisters Magdalen, Catherine, Hilaria, and Roberta made up the community. At the direction of Bishop Lamy, Sister Magdalen was appointed Superior of the Sisters.
It was then decided that the school needed a chapel. Property was purchased and work began on July 25, 1873, with Antoine Mouly as the architect. Mouly and his son, Projectus Mouly, were brought in by Bishop Lamy from Paris, France initially to build what is known today as the St. Francis Cathedral. Bishop Lamy encouraged the sisters to utilize the Moulys to design and build their chapel. In the early 1800s, the older Mouley had been involved in the renovation of King Louis IX’s Sainte Chapelle. It was the favorite chapel of Bishop Lamy from his early days in Paris, France. Hence, the Loretto Chapel was patterned by Mouley after the Sainte Chapelle in the Gothic Revival style, complete with spires, buttresses, and stained glass windows imported from France. It is reported that the sisters pooled their own inheritances to raise the $30,000 required to build this beautiful Gothic chapel.
|The Loretto Chapel
The Chapel was to be 25 feet by 75 feet with a height of 85 feet. Stones for the Chapel were quarried from locations around Santa Fe including Cerro Colorado, about 20 miles from Santa Fe. The ornate stained glass was purchased in 1876 from the DuBois Studio in Paris, and was first sent to New Orleans by sailing ship and then by paddle boat to St. Louis, Missouri where it was taken by covered wagon over the Old Santa Fe Trail to the Chapel.
According to the annals of Mother Magdalen, the construction of the Chapel was placed under the special patronage of St. Joseph “in whose honor we communicated every Wednesday, that he might assist us.” Then she adds, “Of his powerful help we have been witnesses on several occasions.”
The Chapel work progressed and it was not until it was nearly finished that they realized that there was no stairway to connect the Chapel to the choir loft. Moreover, the loft was so exceptionally high that there was no longer any space for a stairway. Mother Magdalen summoned many carpenters to try to build a stairway; but each, in his turn, measured and thought and then shook his head sadly saying, “It can’t be done, Mother”. Mother Magdalen decided, “Let’s wait awhile and make a novena.” So the Sisters of Loretto made a novena to St. Joseph for a suitable solution to the problem. Then the gray-haired man came to the convent and built them the miraculous staircase.
The Chapel was completed in April 25, 1878 and has since seen many additions and renovations such as the introduction of the Stations of the Cross, the Gothic altar and the frescos during the 1890s. Bishop Lamy dedicated the Chapel and named it, Chapel of Our Lady of Light. It was, in many ways, a visible symbol of the courageous Bishop’s opposition to “Americanism”, which was condemned by Pope Leo XIII in 1899.
Tragically, in the devastating aftermath of Vatican Council II, religious vocations dwindled, and the Loretto “sisters” of the new post-conciliar religion, having first betrayed their Order by discarding their traditional religious garb and way of life, ended by betraying the faith and devotion of Mother Magdalen and her Sisters by selling the entire Academy grounds, including the miraculous Chapel, to a commercial property developer. Most of the historical monuments of the love for souls, zeal for the Catholic Faith, and pious devotion of Bishop Lamy, Mother Magdalen, and the Sisters who established the Loreto Academy of Our Lady of Light were demolished to make way for monuments of secular “progress” (greed and materialism) upon their ruins. Sadly, what the secular government had been unable to accomplish for almost a century, the post-Vatican II church did in a matter of a few short years.
The Loretto Academy was closed in 1968, and the property was put up for sale. At the time of sale in 1971, Our Lady of Light Chapel was informally deconsecrated as a Catholic Chapel.
Fortunately, however, there was such an outcry from the devoted people of Santa Fe, including many of the alumni of the Academy, that the Chapel with the miraculous stairs was preserved as a national monument, albeit amidst the commercialism which surrounds it.
Loretto Chapel is now a private museum operated and maintained, in part, for the preservation of the Miraculous Staircase and the Chapel itself. To this very day, those who love and revere good St. Joseph, can still go and gaze upon that which is, without doubt, a visible testimony that Saint Joseph indisputably finds ways to provide for those who humbly and confidently place their needs in his capable hands.