A Mysterious Stairway
in the Loretto Chapel

Santa Fe, NM

April 24th, 2001

Many years ago, sitting at home on a boring evening flipping TV channels, I came across a movie in which David Caradine was walking out of the New Mexico desert to a Catholic school run by the Sisters of Loretto. The film was good and I stayed with it to the end. It was the story of the building of the Loretto Chapel in Sata Fe, New Mexico, around the middle of the 1800s. The center of the story wound around the building of a stairway by a mysterious man who created a architectural masterpiece that defied structural logic; a free standing circular stairway with no center pole. The carpenter, when finished, vanished back into the desert from whence he came. Years later, as we passed through Santa Fe, we stopped at the Chapel to explore the story in detail. It all started in 1852 when a group of Sisters of Loretto left their Kentucky base and headed to Santa Fe to open a school. The trip was hard and dangerous and not all who started, arrived. Along the way, cholera took the life of the Mother Superior. Of those who arrived, Sister Magdalen was named the new Mother Superior and thus begins the story. With the support of Bishop Lamy who had brought them to Santa Fe, the Sisters began building a school. The Loretto Chapel was started in July of 1873. The Bishop was from France and wished the chapel built similar to his beloved Sainte Chapelle in Paris. This meant that the structure would be strictly Gothic, thus becoming the first Gothic structure west of the Mississippi. The chapel was planned to be larger then most others in the area, with a base measuring 25 feet by 75 feet and reaching 85 feet in height. Mother Magdalen wrote in her annals that the chapel was placed under the patronage of St. Joseph. Through financial troubles and constant prayer the Chapel's construction continued until one day near the end of the construction a startling fact was discovered. The unusually high choir loft at the back of the chapel was without access. No stairway had been built. Mother Magdalen called in many carpenters to try to build a stairway, but each in turn, having measured and thought, reported that there was not enough room for a stairway. This left Mother Magdalen with two options, use a ladder, or tear down the loft. Before making a decision Mother Magdalen decided to make a "novena", (a recitation of prayers and other acts of devotion for a period of about 9 days, seeking a favor). According to the Church records, on the last day of the novena, a gray-haired man walked in from the desert pulling a donkey which carried a carpenters tool chest. Without hesitation he offered to build a staircase for which Mother Magdalen graciously accepted expecting this man was a possible answer to her prayers. There are no records on either the identity of this man or the work that he did other then it is believed that it took him from 6 to 8 months to completed the work. No blueprint or construction plan was ever found, and how he managed it remains a secret to this day. Upon completion the man slipped away into the desert from whence he came without saying goodbye or receiving payment. No record has ever been found that would indicate the man ever existed outside the period of time he spent at the Chapel. What he left behind, to this day, is a marvel and wonder to the architectural world. From the mystery wood that it is made of, (dendrologists and journeymen from around the world have failed to identify the wood other than to say that it is obviously not native to New Mexico). This masterpiece is a winding stairway that makes two complete 360 degree turns. There is no supporting pole up the center as most circular stairways have. The entire weight is on the base. 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 has been used daily for nearly 100 years. At the time it was built, the stairway had no nails in it, having been assembled with the use of pegs. It also had no banisters, leaving a spectacular sight of unobstructed stairs leading toward heaven supported on nothing obvious. Sometime later, banisters were added giving the stairway the look it has today. As I stood in the chapel looking up at this mysterious work, I could not fathom what kept it up. It is an awesome sight which cannot be done justice to with a simple camera. That one man created it in the 1870s is just short of unbelievable. The Church seems to avoid detailed analysis of the points in history as recorded, preferring to leave the story much as it was told by the preceding members of the order. It is in the mystique that fascination grows and the question is quietly asked, "Who's hand was actually wielding the hammer and saw in those waning days of the 1870s?"

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