There is nothing better than a good mystery. Many times, a mystery reaffirms faith in a larger power.
But, what happens when there is no actual mystery?
The author Willa Cather based her masterpiece Death Comes for the Archbishop on the life of Bishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy, the Frenchman who was appointed the first Archbishop of New Mexico and who is ultimately responsible for the Loretto Chapel.
When in 1850 the Sisters of Loretto answered Lamy’s plea to expand the educational system in New Mexico, seven sisters braved cholera and floods to come from Kentucky to the two-hundred year old Santa Fe to open the Academy of Our Lady of Light in 1853 with 300 young girls and a pittance of resources.
Lamy touched on his resources in France to bring architect Antoine Mouly from Paris to build the St. Francis Cathedral. He ended up designing the chapel for the school for the Sisters of Loretto.
It is a touching Gothic Revival-style design. The spires, buttresses, and stained glass windows soar the spirit as it was designed to do.
In any case, the staircase.
One of the main reasons to visit the privately – run chapel is the see the supposedly miraculous staircase.
The singing loft was built with only a ladder for access and the sisters weren’t impressed.
Alice Bullock, author of Loretto and the Miraculous Staircase describes it:
“Needing a way to get up to the choir loft the nuns prayed for St. Joseph’s intercession for nine straight days. On the day after their novena ended a shabby looking stranger appeared at their door. He told the nuns he would build them a staircase but that he needed total privacy and locked himself in the chapel for three months. He used a small number of primitive tools including a square, a saw and some warm water and constructed a spiral staircase entirely of non-native wood. The identity of the carpenter is not known for as soon as the staircase was finally finished he was gone. Many witnesses, upon seeing the staircase, feel it was constructed by St. Joseph himself, as a miraculous occurrence.
The resulting staircase is an impressive work of carpentry. It ascends twenty feet, making two complete revolutions up to the choir loft without the use of nails or apparent center support. It has been surmised that the central spiral of the staircase is narrow enough to serve as a central beam. Nonetheless there was no attachment unto any wall or pole in the original stairway, although in 1887 — 10 years after it was built — a railing was added and the outer spiral was fastened to an adjacent pillar. Instead of metal nails, the staircase was constructed using dowels or wooden pegs.”
It is claimed that, even today, architects and engineers can’t explain how the staircase functions, who build it or what wood they used.
It’s a great mystery they say but…..really there never was a mystery. As Mary Jean Straw Cook points out in Loretto: The Sisters and Their Santa Fe Chapel the carpenter was well-known.
Francois-Jean “Frenchy” Rochas was an expert woodworker who emigrated from France. Rochas 1895 death notice in The New Mexican clearly named him as the builder of “the handsome staircase in the Loretto chapel.”
I guess the memory of him just faded.
Joe Nickell’s excellent article Helix to Heaven points out that, in fact, architects and engineers are not confused as to how the stairway works.
While there is no central column, the staircase actually contains a central support in the form of an ‘inner stringer’ that functions as “an almost solid pole.” The outer stringer is attached to a nearby pillar with an iron bracket….
Nickell also points out that the staircase is fitted with wooden pegs that make the critical joints even more secure that iron nails or metal screws – a technique widely known by woodworkers
Perhaps the reasons the lovely staircase is closed today is that it is so poorly constructed that it is simply dangerous to ascend.
Just a short walk from my favorite Santa Fe hotel, the chapel and staircase are fabulously beautiful and a wonderful place to visit in Santa Fe.