The Loretto Chapel's Miracle Staircase
Who Built It?
by Jay W. Sharp
In the year 1852, seven nuns of the order Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross chose to answer Father Jean Baptiste Lamy’s call to help bring education to the impoverished, Spanish-speaking children of the desert Southwest. As they left their convent — their Motherhouse — in central Kentucky, the nuns certainly knew that Lamy, appointed by the Vatican, had been dispatched to Santa Fe to assert ecclesiastical authority over the Southwest, a region recently conquered by the United States in the Mexican/American War. They could scarcely have anticipated, however, the hardships they would endure, the educational challenges they would face, or a certainly marvelous — perhaps a miraculous staircase — their efforts would yield.
Faith and Purpose
The seven sisters, dressed in their black habits and capes, began their long journey grounded in their faith and purpose. Their order had been founded in Kentucky four decades earlier, taking its spiritual cue from the Italian city of Loretto, to which, according to legend, angels miraculously transported the boyhood home of Jesus and the Holy Family from Nazareth in the 13th century to protect it from the violent aftermath of the Crusades. The Sisters of Loretto believed in their hearts that, as the Church said, “The whole world has no place more sacred. . . ” As their purpose, they set as their enduring goal the Christian education of children. They could envision no higher calling. Indeed, as Bernadette Saenz and Victoria Valdez quoted in the Borderlands Internet site, the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross dedicated its work to “The glory of God, the honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary. . . the propagation of our holy religion. . . by instructing youth.” As they would soon discover, the seven sisters, ranging from 28 to 42 years in age, would need all their faith and commitment in the Southwest.
The Way Westward
They traveled by wagon across the country from Kentucky to St. Louis and by boat up the Missouri River to Independence. There one of the sisters fell ill with cholera. She could go no farther. She would eventually return to the Kentucky Motherhouse. The remaining six forged on, now traveling by a mule-drawn wagon westward, 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 and perhaps fascination as the Indians, superb 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.
Continuing their long trek westward, they would eventually put the fearful Great Plains behind them and draw within view of the wooded slopes of northern New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Finally, arriving in Santa Fe, the City of Holy Faith after months of hard travel, they began to discover the Southwest, where destitute and unschooled Hispanic and Indian peoples lived in small communities scattered across the desert basins and forested mountains.
The Southwest in the Mid-19th Century
The sisters could scarcely have imagined the task before them—bringing Christian education to the children of the Southwest. They faced lifetimes of work.
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. “The population of the city itself but little exceeds 3,000,” said early merchant Josiah Gregg in The Commerce of the Prairies, “yet, including several surrounding villages which are embraced in its corporate jurisdiction, it amounts to nearly 6,000 souls.
“The only attempt at anything like architectural compactness and precision consists in four tiers of buildings whose fronts are shaded with a fringe of portales [porches] or corredores [passageways] of the rudest possible description. They stand around the public square, and comprise the Palacio, or Governor’s house, the Custom House, Barracks (with which is connected the fearful Calabozo [jail])” and various other structures and shops. . . ”
Attending a mass in Santa Fe a few years before the sisters arrived, Protestant Susan Shelby Magoffin wrote in her diary (later published as Down the Santa Fe Trail and Into Mexico) that “The women kneeled all over the floor, there being no pews, while the men stood up, occasionally kneeling and crossing themselves. . . There is also a statue of Christ covered with a net to protect it from injury—near it is a large waxen doll dressed as a priest and it bearing a cross.”
The sisters would soon find that the greater Southwest had been largely neglected
by Church and civil authorities between the time of Mexico’s early 19th
century revolution for independence from Spain and the country’s mid-19th
century loss of the Southwest to the United States. As Father Machebeuf, Lamy’s
Vicar General, said in 1851 (quoted by Sister Thomas Marie McMahon in her Master’s
Thesis, Arizona’s Pioneer Religious Congregation, 1870-1890), “This
country of ancient Catholicity, but, alas, how times have changed! Instead of
that piety and practical religion which marked the days of the Missions, we have
now but the forms and exterior of religion... In a population of 70,000 [in Arizona],
including the converted Indians, there are but fifteen priests, and six of these
are worn out by age and have no energy. The others have not a spark of zeal,
and their lives are scandalous beyond description.”
Moreover, according to W. W. H. Davis, El Gringo: New Mexico and Her People, “. . . there is a larger number of persons who cannot read and write than any other Territory in the Union.”
A full decade after the first of the Sisters of Loretto arrived, Lamy gave further insight into the Church’s continuing struggles, saying that “The present number of our Priests in missions is 41, five in charge of Colorado, three in Arizona, the rest in New Mexico. I have made three pastoral visits into Colorado, and only one into Arizona, but this took me six months, from the 1st of November 1863 to the 1st of May 1864. I traveled over a thousand leagues on horseback. In some places we had to sleep under the moon and to travel spaces from 20 to 25 leagues without a drop of water, walking to rest my horse. . . ”
Commitment, a New Chapel and Prayer
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.
While the energetic Lamy — as he rose to the level of archbishop — revitalized the Faith, restoring old churches, building new churches, establishing new parishes, reassigning the clergy and recruiting new teaching orders in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, the Sisters of Loretto expanded their Academy of Our Lady of Light to cover a city block with 10 buildings, accommodating 300 students.
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, neo-Gothic-style 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, according to the Loretto Chapel Internet site. They hired Parisian architects Antoine Mouly and his son, Projectus Mouly, to build their chapel, which bears similarities to King Louie IX’s Sainte Chapelle in the City of Lights.
The sisters must have watched with keen anticipation as sandstone and volcanic rock, quarried from nearby mountains, rose into towering walls and as stained glass, manufactured in Paris’ DuBois Studio, gave imagery and warm light to the chapel windows. The structure, completed after nearly five years, stood some 85 feet in height and spanned 75 feet in length and 25 feet in width. It would be called Our Lady of Light Chapel.
As completion neared, however, the order superior, Mother Magdalene, realized that the Mouly’s, who had died unexpectedly, had neglected to plan for a staircase to provide chanters access to the chapel’s exquisite choir loft, 22 feet above the floor of the nave. She could see that a conventional staircase would not serve; it would take too much room in the chapel. She refused to accept a simple ladder to the choir loft; it would inhibit access for aging chanters. She could see no acceptable answer to the dilemma.
She and the other sisters then turned, not to architects and builders, but to their faith to remedy the problem. Perhaps recalling the source of their order’s name — the Italian city where the home of the Holy Family was placed by the angels — they addressed a novena, an ancient Church ritual calling for nine consecutive days of seeking help through prayer, to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters as well as the foster father of Jesus.
On the last day of the novena, the Sisters of Loretto discovered before their new chapel a bearded old man carrying a few simple tools and leading a donkey, offering his skills as a carpenter. Although the sisters apparently did not know the man, they promptly employed him, evidently convinced that their novena had been answered. For several months, shielded from the nuns’ view, the old carpenter worked in seclusion, shaping and forming the wood, fastening tenon (tongue) and mortise (hole) joints with wooden dowels or wedges. The nuns must have wondered about his work as he crafted a spiral staircase, which rose, like a blossoming flower, to connect the nave to the choir loft.
Finally, they saw the results, and realized that it was a woodworker’s masterpiece. They gathered to celebrate its completion. Its 33 steps spiraled upward through two 360 degree revolutions. The Sisters of Loretto would use the spiral staircase — which has no central column to provide structural stability and strength — to ascend to the choir loft for the next 85 years. “. . . as one climbed each step, a feeling of vertical movement was felt, as if the turns in the staircase were taken out of a large coiled spring. It is said that this springiness is a part of the secret of its creator,” said Dan Paulos in his Internet site. “Its beauty is ageless. Its strength, untiring.” Inexplicably, when the Sisters of Loretto sought to thank and pay the bearded old carpenter, they found that he had vanished without a word. They could find no trace of him. They even after advertised in the Santa Fe newspaper, offering a reward to anyone who could identify and locate the carpenter. But he had simply disappeared. The sisters began to wonder whether the bearded old carpenter who answered their novena might have been St. Joseph himself.
Perhaps taking inspiration from the marvel in their chapel in Santa Fe, the sisters moved to expand their instruction for the youth of the Southwest. They would open new schools in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and western Texas as well as in other parts of the nation. After the Second Vatican Council (1962 to 1965), which convened to reinvigorate the Church, “. . . the opportunities for ministry for the sisters. . . increased to include adult education, geriatrics, pastoral ministry, religious education, and ‘peace and justice’ projects,” said Sister Aurelia Ottersbach in the Handbook of Texas Online.
Miracle or Just a Marvel?
As frequently happens in Santa Fe, legend collides with fact in the story of the staircase of the Loretto Chapel.
Traditionalists may still hold that St. Joseph built the structure. They have long held fast to their belief miracles. After all, angels moved the carpenter’s family home from Nazareth (in modern Israel) to Loretto (on Italy’s Adriatic coast) in the 13th century.
Various families have claimed that an ancestral craftsman built the stairs. For instance, in 1975, according to Gerri Kobren, writing for the Baltimore Sun in 1996, Oscar E. Hadwiger suggested that his grandfather, a master German woodworker named Yohon Hadwiger, might have crafted the structure.
More recently, in her 2002 book Loretto: The Sisters and Their Santa Fe Chapel, local historian Mary Jean Straw Cook offers some indications that Francois-Jean Rochas, a French master carpenter, built the staircase. She points to two sources that connect Rochas’ name with the stairs—one, an item in a Sisters of Loretto logbook of expenses and, two, a death notice in the Santa Fe New Mexican. Both sources mention Rochas’ involvement with the construction of the staircase.
Whatever the truth, the bearded old man who appeared at the Loretto Chapel, carrying a few simple tools, leading a donkey and offering his skills as a carpenter, left a legacy in craftsmanship and generosity.
In 1971, the Loretto Chapel was deconsecrated and sold to private interests. It is now a museum.
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