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The Mysterious Staircase, Santa Fe
Miracle or Legend?
- Janet James

 

Architects will tell you it should have crashed the moment someone set foot on it.  Scientists will say it defies the law of gravity.  Lumber specialists disagree on the type of wood used.  Carpenters said it was impossible in such a small space.  The church is silent. 

But the Sisters of Loretto know.   It was a miracle.  

It all began over 100 years ago.  The Sisters of Loretto, brought to Santa Fe by Bishop Lamy to teach the people, needed a school and a chapel.  Mexican carpenters completed the school and then plans were made to build a chapel.

Because Bishop Lamy was from France, he wanted the Sisters to have a chapel designed in the same style as the Sainte Chapelle in Paris. 

French and Italians masons went to work on the chapel, and although there were some financial worries, the chapel progressed without difficulty and with the aid of prayers by the Sisters to Joseph, the carpenter saint.   

It wasn't until the very last stage, that the terrible design error was revealed.  There was no way to get from the chapel to the choir loft, which was exceptionally high, and there was no room for ordinary stairs to be built.

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Loretto Chapel
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Inside the Chapel
Many carpenters were called upon, but they all shook their heads, saying a stairway required much more space than was available, and suggested two alternatives; use a ladder or tear the whole thing down and start over.  

But the Sisters, being women of God, were not discouraged.  Once again they called upon St. Joseph with a novena, and on the tenth day an old gray-haired man, carrying only a toolbox, appeared on a donkey, and asked if he could build the staircase.  The Sisters, ecstatic and grateful, gave their consent.

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dscn1201.jpg (80933 bytes) Inside the old man's toolbox was only a hammer, a saw and a T square.  It took him eight months to complete the beautiful and sturdy spiral staircase using NO NAILS and NO CENTER SUPPORT.  

He had done it in a very small space, making two complete 360 turns with mysteriously perfect (how did he do it with the tools he had?) curves, and using pegs to hold the 33 steps together. 

Knowing they had been blessed, the Sisters gave thanks, but when they went to pay the carpenter, he had disappeared, and when they went to to the lumber company, no one knew of any purchase, nor did they carry the type of wood that was used on the staircase.

National Trust Guide
America's Guide for Architecture and History Travelers. 
Details
The church, is cautious about spreading rumors of supernatural intervention, but the Sisters know that the miracle staircase is an answer to their novena to St. Joseph.  Some even think the gray-haired man on the donkey was St. Joseph himself.
Recent findings to this story have caused controversy.  After learning that a "hermit rancher," known as Francois-Jean Rochas, had died, leaving behind an array of sophisticated carpentry tools, Mary Jean Cook, an amateur historian, began digging around for his death notice.   

She found it in the January 6, 1896 issue of the  Santa Fe New Mexican.  

The notice said that Rochas murdered body had been found in a remote cabin, and that he had been favorably known in Santa Fe as "an expert in wood" and had "built the handsome staircase in the Loretto Chapel. . ."

If you visit the Chapel, you will not hear this story.  Authorities find fault with Ms. Cook's theory on a technicality.  First of all, she is an amateur.  
Secondly, she has written a book about the staircase and states that her findings are 'absolute'.   Professional historians take issue with the definitive statement, saying if she would agree to using the word 'probable' they would support her discovery.  Ms. Cook refused.

How did the legend begin?  Speculation says that the Sisters may have started it in response to questions from students.  It became a true icon years later, when the story appeared in Ripley's Believe it or Not.

Miracle or legend?  Does it matter?  The staircase is an astonishing creation - extraordinary for the time and miraculous for the timing.

The Staircase


Based on a legend of a real chapel stairway in Santa Fe, The Staircase is a lively historical fiction that successfully merges myth, religion, and old-fashioned pioneer sensibility.  Details

For directions, times and admission visit  Loretta Chapel website. 

Read these commentaries submitted by readers.  Your comments are always welcome.  Send them to us here.

 Let's be off to Bandelier - an ancient wonder!  

 

 


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