|Devotion to Our Lady||
A Santa Fe architect and wood expert, said that he had never seen a circular wooden stairway with 360-degree turns that did not have a supporting pole down the center. The short pieces of wood were put together only with hundreds of square wooden pegs used with great precision and exceptional craftsmanship.
FIRST, A LITTLE BIT OF HISTORY ON SANTA FE
Santa Fe is the oldest capital city in the United States and the oldest city in New Mexico. Santa Fe means "holy faith" in Spanish. Santa Fe is a city in a stunning natural desert like setting with a mix of Native American, Spanish and Western cultures. It is the USA’s second-oldest city. Santa Fe sits about 7,000 feet above sea level and the mountain vistas can top out around 12,000 feet. Set at the base of the southern part of the Rocky Mountains, it has a temperate climate that is more alpine than desert. The Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Mountains provide a beautiful backdrop to Santa Fe’s adobe skyline. Its population has steadily grown from under 50,000 in 1970 to 70,000 in 2013.
The city of Santa Fe was originally occupied by a number of Pueblo Indian villages with founding dates between 1050 to 1150. One of the earliest known settlements in what today is downtown Santa Fe came sometime after 900. The Santa Fe River provided water to people living there. The Santa Fe River is a seasonal waterway which was a year round stream until the 1700’s.
The first Spanish effort to colonize the region took place in 1598, with the establishing of Santa Fe de Nuevo México as a province of New Spain. New Mexico's second Spanish governor, however, founded a new city at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Mountains in 1607, which he called La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asís, the Royal Town of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis of Assisi. In 1610, he made it the capital of the province, which it has almost constantly remained, making it the oldest state capital in the United States.
Overlooking Santa Fe, this reinforced concrete cross stands 25 feet tall and weighs 76 tons. It commemorates the death of 21 Franciscan friars and numerous Spanish colonists during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. It was dedicated during Santa Fe Fiesta of 1920 and was the site of candlelight processions for many years. In 1925 the fiesta procession attracted about 3,000 people, and bonfires on the hillside illuminated the cross.
THE BUILD UP TO THE MIRACULOUS STAIRCASE
Problems in New Mexico
After the United States’ victory in the Mexican-American War, a vast piece of land in the Southwest was ceded in 1848 to America. The Spanish town, La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asis (“The Royal Town of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi”), founded in 1610, became the capital of the state of New Mexico, with the new name of Santa Fe. It was then occupied by Indians, Mexicans and Spaniards.
Bishop Lamy Comes to Town
Simultaneously, a young French-American priest, stationed in Cincinnati, Ohio, Fr. Jean-Baptiste Lamy, was appointed the bishop for this new acquired territory in 1850. When he arrived, many priests, resenting him as an interloper, decided to return to Mexico, leaving the new diocese with a few priests and educators. In response, Bishop Lamy wrote pleas requesting priests, brothers and sisters for his diocese: “I have 6,000 Catholics and 300 Americans” he explained! The first to accept his plea were the Sisters of Loretto (not to be confused with the Sisters of Loreto—spelt with one single “t” as opposed to “tt”).
Sisters Answer the Call for Help
The Sisters of Loretto were founded in 1812 by three women, Mary Rhodes, Ann Havern, and Christina Stuart, under the guidance of Rev. Charles Nerinckx in Kentucky, under the name of Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross. This young congregation was the first order of sisters created in the United States. When they named their little log cabin “Little Loretto” in honor of the Holy Family, they became known as the “Loretto Sisters.” Their mission was to educate the poor children of the frontier. When the community was formed into a religious congregation, it was renamed the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross. As part of his mission to build churches and educational facilities, Bishop Lamy asked the Sisters of Loretto (a teaching order) to leave their home in Kentucky and establish a school for girls in the frontier city of Santa Fe.
The Arduous Journey Begins
In 1852, seven courageous sisters left the safe, secure and civilized state of Kentucky and began the arduous journey. They traveled by wagon across the country from Kentucky to St. Louis and by boat up the Missouri River to Independence, but on the way a sorrowful adversity befell the little community. Their beloved Superior, Mother Matilda, came down with cholera and died shortly after arriving in Independence. Two other Sisters also had the disease, but they slowly recovered.
From Independence, the remaining six forged on, now traveling by a mule-drawn wagon westward trek to the Southwest and Santa Fe, across the Great Plains, through that grassy sea, a landscape disturbingly different from their forested hills of Kentucky. Encamped for a night on the Kansas plain, in the range of the Comanches, the Kiowa, the Osage, the Arapahoe and other hostile Plains tribes, the sisters and their train found themselves surrounded by a party of warriors. The young nuns watched in terror as the Indian horsemen, rode in a thunderous orbit around them. The women must have felt profound relief and perhaps confusion as the war party, miraculously, it must have seemed, broke off its assault and disappeared over the horizon. Their emotions changed to grief later in the evening, however, when one of the sisters, stricken with cholera, died. Fearing desecration of her body, the five survivors buried the sister in an unmarked grave.
The remaining five sisters continued their travel by wagon. After more months of struggles and fears, broken axles and wheels, and scorching days, what was left of the missionary team finally arrived in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1852. Sisters Magdalen, Catherine, Hilaria, and Roberta made up the community. At the direction of Bishop Lamy, Sister Magdalen was appointed Superior of the Sisters. She was a woman of strong faith and firm resolution, and the situation she and her Sisters faced was a difficult one. Upon their arrival, they saw that Santa Fe in the mid-19th century amounted to little more than humble earthen-floored adobe buildings and homes connected by dirt pathways and wagon roads.
Great-Hearted, God-Loving Women
It was only because these Sisters of Loretto were great-hearted women, thoroughly permeated with an all-consuming love of God, that they were able to brave the hardships of those first years. Bishop Lamy was in the midst of a valiant struggle to preserve the Catholic Faith in “New” Mexico. The formerly Spanish Catholic territory was still groaning under its hostile “takeover” from Mexico in 1848, and the Sisters were not particularly welcome, as far as territorial officials were concerned. Calling on their faith and determination, however, the nuns of the Sisters of Loretto, led by the original five, went to work. They opened their first school for girls — the Academy of Our Lady of Light — in 1853, within a year after the Order’s arrival in Santa Fe.
Building a School
Even though they did not speak Spanish when they arrived, they opened the Academy of Our Lady of Light (Loretto) in 1853 with the support of Bishop Lamy. Mexican carpenters zealously began to build for the Sisters. The school was swiftly completed and was called “Loretto Academy of Our Lady of Light.” Despite the challenges of the territory (smallpox, tuberculosis, leaky mud roofs and even a brush with the rowdy Confederate Texans during the Civil War), the boarding and day school expanded and flourished.
We Need a Chapel
It was decided that the school needed a chapel. So plans were made next for a beautiful Chapel. With the encouragement of Lamy, who had begun construction of a new, neo-Romanesque-style cathedral just east of Santa Fe’s plaza in 1869, the Sisters of Loretto undertook the construction of a new chapel southeast of the plaza in 1873. Calling on donations from the local population, tuition monies from their girls’ school and even inheritances from their own families, the nuns raised $30,000. Property was purchased and in 1872, Jean-Baptiste Lamy, the Bishop of the Santa Fe Archdiocese, commissioned the building of a convent chapel to be named Our Lady of Light Chapel, which would be in the care of the Sisters of Loretto.
According to the Sisters’ annals for the year 1873, the Chapel was begun on July 25th of that year. It was designed by the same architect, Mr. Mouly, who had already designed the Bishop’s Cathedral in Santa Fe. Because Bishop Lamy was from France, he wished the Sisters to have a Chapel that was similar to his beloved Sainte Chapelle in Paris built for King Louis IX of France. That meant that it was to be strictly European Gothic, in fact, the first Gothic structure west of the Mississippi. It was to be, in many ways, a visible symbol of the courageous Bishop’s opposition to “Americanism,” which would be condemned by Pope Leo XIII in 1899.
Antoine Mouly designed the chapel in the Gothic Revival style, complete with spires, buttresses, and stained glass windows imported from France. As an architect, Mouly had been involved in the renovation of King Louis IX’s Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, France in the early 1800s. When asked to design their chapel, he fashioned it in a beautiful Gothic style after the Sainte-Chapelle, to which it bears an obvious resemblance, although it was built on a much smaller scale. It was a striking contrast to the adobe churches already in the area.
Skilled craftsmen and artisans from France and Italy were brought to assist the qualified local builders for the bishop’s cathedral. They also helped with the sister’s chapel. The entire design and craftsmanship were executed majestically but not at a large expense the sisters could not afford. It would be large ― larger in fact than most of the mission Chapels in that area. It was to be 25 feet by 75 feet with a height of 85 feet.
Stone for the Chapel was quarried from locations around Santa Fe including Cerro Colorado, about 20 miles from Santa Fe near the town of Lamy. The sandstone for the walls and the porous volcanic stone used for the ceiling were hauled to town by wagon. The ornate stained glass in the Loretto Chapel also made part of its journey to Santa Fe via wagon. Purchased in 1876 from the DuBois Studio in Paris, the glass was first sent from Paris to New Orleans by sailing ship and then by paddle boat to St. Louis, MO, where it was taken by covered wagon over the Old Santa Fe Trail to the Chapel.
The Chapel work progressed with some financial worries and a maximum of faith on the part of the Sisters. It was not until it was nearly finished, during the fourth year of the chapel’s construction, that they realized that a dreadful mistake had been made. The Chapel itself was beautifully done, and the choir loft was wonderful too, but there was no connecting link between the two. There was no stairway and, because the loft was exceptionally high. There was no way to access the choir loft twenty-two feet above. A typical staircase would use too much floor space thereby limiting seating in the chapel. The school was growing with more students each year.
Mother Magdalen called in many carpenters to try to build a stairway; but each, in his turn, measured, thought, and then shook his head sadly saying, “It can’t be done, Mother” (“No se puede, Madrecita”) ― they all concluded that due to the chapel’s small size, a standard staircase would be too large and that access to the loft would have to be via ladder, as a staircase would interfere with the interior space of the small Chapel—but the Sisters did not feel comfortable with that prospect because of the long habits that they wore. Using a ladder to ascend the loft would be terrifying and unfitting for the sisters and the girls.
“If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you shall say…”
It looked as if there were only two alternatives: to use a ladder to get to the choir which seemed impractical in any case, or to tear the whole thing down and rebuild it differently. The latter would have been a heartbreaking task. However, anyone who knows true Catholic Sisters and their trust in Divine Providence, knows they will not plunge into such a drastic solution to a problem without first saying something like, “Let’s wait awhile and make a novena.” These sisters though were ladies of great faith! Mother Magdalen recorded in the annals that the erection of the Chapel was placed under the 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.” They decided to entrust the difficulty to the one they had placed the construction of their chapel under: St. Joseph. So the Sisters of Loretto made a novena to St. Joseph for a suitable solution to the problem.
Knock, Knock! Who’s there?
It was not surprising therefore when on the ninth and final day of the novena, there appeared at the school an old, shabby-looking stranger, a gray-haired and bearded man with a donkey and a tool chest; a carpenter who asked if he might try to help the Sisters, by building a stairway but he insisted on total privacy. Mother gave her consent gladly, and He was hired and proceeded to go to work. He locked himself in the chapel for many months. Politely leaving whenever the sisters came to the chapel to pray. He used a small number of primitive tools including a square, a saw and some of the Sisters remembered seeing a few tubs of water, for soaking the wood to make it pliable. With just this he constructed a spiral staircase.
The Vanishing Carpenter
One would not pay an itinerant craftsman until after the job was completed. Mother Magdalen wrote she didn’t even ask the name of the mysterious carpenter. During these times it was considered immodest for the sisters and the girls to carry on a conversation with a male laborer. They just remembered that the only tools he had were a hammer, a saw and a T square. And he worked during more than six months. When the work was completed, Mother Magdalen went to pay him, but he had vanished. She went to the local lumber yard to pay at least for the wood, but they knew nothing of the matter there!
THE MIRACULOUS STAIRCASE
A Masterpiece of Work
The elegant circular staircase was completed― it took at least six months to build. The stairway is a magnificent structure. The resulting staircase is an impressive work of carpentry. The winding stairway that St. Joseph left for the sisters and their students is a masterpiece of beauty and wonder. It ascends twenty feet, making two complete 360 degree revolutions up to the choir loft.
Among the girls who attended the Academy at the time the stairway was constructed was a girl of about thirteen years. She later became a Loretto Sister, and she never tired of telling how she and her friend were among the first to climb up the stairway. She said that they were so frightened when they got up to the choir that they came down on their hands and knees!
There are three mysteries that surround the spiral staircase in the Loretto Chapel: (1) the physics of its construction which defies all laws of gravity; (2) origin of the type of wood used, which does not exist in the entire region or anywhere near it; and (3) the identity of its builder.
MYSTERY #1 : The Physics and Engineering
The design was innovative for the time and some of the design considerations still perplex experts today. There is no supporting pole up the center as most circular stairways have. This means that it hangs totally without support, and the transferred weight rests entirely on its base and against the choir loft ― a mystery that defies all laws of gravity. Some architects have said that by all laws of gravity, it should have crashed to the floor the minute anyone stepped on it, and yet it was used daily for over 80 years. It is still used today, but not as often—being limited to marriage photographs and the like. Until now, no consensus among engineers has been reached to give a scientific explanation. Questions also surround the number of stair risers, relative to the height of the choir loft, and about the types of wood and other materials used in the stairway’s construction. The mystery had never been satisfactorily solved as to who the carpenter was, or where he got his lumber, and that there were no reports of anyone seeing lumber delivered, or even seeing the man come and go while the construction was being done.
Urban C. Weidner, a Santa Fe architect and wood expert, said that he had never seen a circular wooden stairway with 360-degree turns that did not have a supporting pole down the center. The short pieces of wood 3 to 5 feet in length were put together only with hundreds of square wooden pegs used with great precision and exceptional craftsmanship. There are no nails, screws nor glue. The 33 steps and the 33 steps (representing the number of years Our Lord is reputed to have lived among us) are all of the same height and these are enough to reach from floor to choir loft. The assembled structured is comprised of approximately 93 pieces of wood, divided amongst 10, for the outside stringer, 8 for the inside stringer. One of the most baffling things about the stairway, however, is the perfection of the curves of the stringers― each piece is perfectly curved. Mr. Weidner says that 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. How this was done in the 1870’s by a single man, in an out-of-the-way place, with only the most primitive tools is inexplicable to modern architects.
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.
MYSTERY #2 : The Mysterious Wood
Another mystery of this staircase was the type of wood used. Though the treads have been constantly walked on and were used daily by the sisters and children for over 100 years, nonetheless, only the edges show signs of wear. The wood also appears not to be native to the state of New Mexico, and is in fact, an unknown variety.
We would like to emphasize another twist to this mystery. It comes to us from Richard Lindsley, who managed the Loretto Chapel (which is now in private hands) from 1991 to 2006 and says at one point he took a sample of wood from the staircase and gave it to a scientist named Forrest N. Easley, who worked at the Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake, California.
Lindsley said: “I went to the top of the stairs. There’s a crack that’s held together with a metal plate. The staircase had sunk an inch or inch-and-a-half into the floor. That’s where I pried a loose piece and gave it to him (Easley). I expected to hear the results quickly.”
Instead, says Lindsley, two months passed and he all but gave up about hearing anything. But one day, he recalls, Easley showed up at the chapel because he wanted to report his results in person. What he told Lindsley was straight to the point: the wood sample was spruce of no known subspecies. It matched nothing in the scientific record. Easley had wanted to thoroughly search through all known data. That’s what had caused the delay. He researched it further and after 18 months came out with a careful, measured statement saying that the wood from the staircase had molecules that were “very dense and square” and indicated that it had come from trees that grew slowly in a “very, very cold place,” like Alaska (not New Mexico).
That was interesting because at the time the chapel was constructed ― by the mysterious stranger ― there was no rail system that could have brought in the wood from such a distance, and no local trees that grew above an elevation of 10,000 feet ― which is the only place of comparable cold. The closest match remained spruce from Alaska. In short, it was no known type. The spiral staircase was made entirely of non-native wood, made of an apparently extinct wood species. “He claimed to have discovered a new subspecies,” says Lindsley. “He called it Pinacae Ticea ‘Josefii’ Easley,” or ‘Loretto spruce.” Let’s call it a mystery. Or a miracle!
MYSTERY #3 : The Mysterious Carpenter
The identity of the carpenter is not known, for, as soon as the staircase was finally finished, he was gone. The mysterious carpenter disappeared without pay or thanks. Since he left before the Mother Superior could pay him, the Sisters of Loretto offered a reward for the identity of the man, but it was never claimed. After searching for the man (an ad even ran in the local newspaper) and finding no trace of him, some concluded that he was St. Joseph himself, having come in answer to the sisters’ prayers. 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. Many witnesses, upon seeing the staircase, feel it was constructed by St. Joseph himself, as a miraculous occurrence.
Johann Hadwiger, a German woodworker, was once credited with the design and construction of the stairs. The source of this claim, Johann’s grandson Oscar Hadwiger, later admitted he had no proof. These claims that insist upon a human origin for the staircase have invariably come from atheistic and skeptical sources. Until this day no one has yet verified the builder. According to the written account there are many inconsistencies with all of the possible builders including Mr. Rocha.
Some claim (for example in Wikipedia) the riddle of the carpenter’s identity was finally solved in the late 1990s by Mary Jean Straw Cook, author of Loretto: The Sisters and Their Santa Fe Chapel (2002: Museum of New Mexico Press). She claimed his name was Francois-Jean “Frenchy” Rochas, an expert woodworker who emigrated from France and arrived in Santa Fe around the time the staircase was built. In addition to evidence that linked Rochas to another French contractor who worked on the chapel, Cook found an 1895 death notice in The New Mexican explicitly naming Rochas as the builder of “the handsome staircase in the Loretto chapel.” However, the skeptical viewpoint comes in large part from a magazine operated by humanists and atheists (and in fact called The Skeptical Inquirer).
The miracles of God will always be questioned and denied by rationalists and atheists. To those who have faith, no explanation is required. For those who do not have faith, no explanation will ever suffice.
The Loretto Academy was closed in 1968, and the property was put up for sale. It is now a private museum.