The Miraculous Staircase of Loretto Chapel
By Doreen Wente
Fashioned after the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, France, the Loretto Chapel of Santa Fe, New Mexico, is a Gothic Revival Style work of art designed by the French architect, Antione Mouly. Orignally named Our Lady of Light Chapel, it was built for the Sisters of Loretto in 1872. While this building and its legend may not be ancient, it’s spiral staircase remains a mystery.
As the story goes, Monsieur Mouly died suddenly before the chapel could be constructed. When work finally ended, the workers realized that there was no access to the choir loft. As was common in that time period, a ladder was suggested. The Sisters were not comfortable with this idea due to the long habits they wore. A traditional staircase was not an option. The chapel was too small to accommodate one.
The nuns prayed a Novena, an ancient devotion consisting of nine days of prayer. During this time, the prayed to St. Joseph for an answer. On the tenth day, a traveler knocked on the convent door. The man’s only possessions were a few primitive tools and his donkey. He told the nuns that he would build them a staircase, but he wanted complete privacy. The nuns agreed and the man locked himself in the chapel for three months. The nuns claim they did not see anyone else come or go from the chapel. They never saw anyone deliver wood or supplies to the stranger.
At the end of the third month, the stranger disappeared. The nuns found a beautiful, spiral staircase in their chapel. They wanted to pay the stranger for his work and inquired around town, but no one knew who the man was or where to find him. The nuns believed that the stranger who had helped them was St. Joseph, the carpenter.
The staircase was considered to be a miracle. It was constructed of wood not native to the area and was put together with wooden pegs instead of bolts. The staircase is 20 feet tall, makes two tight revolutions, does not have a center beam and was not anchored to anything. The nuns could not understand how this was possible. It defied all logic.
Over the years, for safety purposes, a railing has been added and the staircase has been anchored to a nearby pillar. May carpenters and others have studied the staircase. Master Carpenter Christopher Francis Ocean believes that due to the tightness of the spiral, a center beam is not necessarily needed and that the stair case is not miraculous, but a “magnificent work of art.” Author Ben Radford has also studied the staircase and believes that Francious-Jean Rochas is the mysterious builder, although this has never been proven.
Today, the Loretto Chapel is a museum and sometimes wedding chapel. Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit the chapel each year to see the Miraculous Staircase for themselves. Whether it is really a miracle of St. Joseph or not, it truly is a magnificent sight to behold and even though some claim there is no miracle involved, it is something that many generations to come will continue to question and admire.
Sources: Washington Post January 16, 2010