The Miracle in Santa Fe – The Loretto Staircase Mystery

There are few things more beautiful the spiral stairs and curved stairs. They often have elegant lines with a graceful ascension. Some say the earliest known spiral stair case was built in 480-470 BC at Temple A in the Greek Colony in Selinante, Sicily. There are many famous spiral staircases. The Round Tower in Copenhagen Denmark is less of a staircase and more of a ramp that rises to an observatory. It was commissioned in 1637 and is wide enough for carriages, as Tsar Peter the Great and Catharine I proved on a visit to Denmark. The Vatican museum has a double helix of some renown. It is often photographed. One of the most fascinating of all spiral staircases is the one in a small chapel in Santa Fe.

The Loretto Chapel was built as part of the Academy of Our Lady of Light. It was begun in 1873 under the guiding hand of the French Architect, Antione Mouly and his son. Mouly had been involved in the renovation of the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, and the Loretto Chapel was modeled after it on a smaller scale. Before it was completed, the architect died. There are some reports that he was shot by the Bishops nephew over a woman. In any case, left uncompleted was the access to the choir loft which was 22 feet in the air. It is believed that the original idea may have been to provide a ladder for entry. This did not appeal to the nuns. They requested carpenters to offer their suggestions. All said it was impossible. The chapel was too small to build an adequate stairway.

This is where the legend begins. The nuns prayed for nine days, conducting a novena. They prayed to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters. For eight days nothing happened. On the ninth day a stranger arrived at the church looking for work. With him he had a donkey loaded down with carpentry tools. He said he could build a stair case but would need a couple barrels of water to soak the wood.

There are reports that he worked for 6 months. Others claim it was done much more quickly. The result was a wooden spiral staircase the made a double helix on its way to the loft. It was constructed using only wooden dowels, no nails or glue, and had 33 steps leading to the choir loft. The Sisters of Loretto were so pleased they made a celebratory dinner for the carpenter. He didn’t show. He disappeared without a trace. He didn’t receive his pay. The Sisters ran an ad in the paper looking for him, but he was gone.

There are other curious facts. The wood used for the staircase is somewhat of a mystery. It hasn’t been identified. Some say it is made from an extinct species. None of the lumber yards had any bill of sales for the Loretto Chapel in regards to the staircase. The double helix was a master piece of workmanship. It had no center support. Spiral staircases need to have a support structure, a center pole or attachment to fixed objects like walls. Some speculate the inner radius of the stair case was narrow enough to act as its own support. Still, it is a marvel of craftsmanship and the Lorretto Staircase continues to awe visitors.