Wednesday, November 23, 2011

New Mexico Legend: The Miraculous Staircase

In 1610 the Spanish founded Santa Fe, today the capital of New Mexico. Santa Fe was originally called the “Royal City of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi,” in Spanish-- La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Assisi. 

Santa Fe remained under the control of the New Republic of Mexico for 25 years. In 1848 with the U.S. victory in the Mexican War the southwest was ceded to the United States.

Loretto Chapel
At the end of the Old Santa Fe Trail in the capital stands the Loretto Chapel. In 1850 Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy was appointed by the Catholic Church to New Mexico territory. 

Seeking to spread the faith and bring an educational system to the territory he sent out a plea for priests, brothers, and nuns to come preach and teach.

In 1852 the Sisters of Loretto founded in 1812 in Kentucky responded to Lamy’s plea. They sent seven sisters but only five arrived in 1852, their journey to Santa Fe was very difficult. 

Their Mother Superior died in a cholera epidemic as they traveled by wagon and another sister became too ill to continue and returned to Kentucky. 

These sisters opened the “Academy of Our Lady of Light (Loretto) in 1853. In 1855 several more sisters joined them. Their school grew to over 300 students with a campus that covered a square block with ten buildings.

Despite the challenges of the new territory, which included: smallpox, tuberculosis, leaky mud roofs, and a brush with rowdy Confederate Texas soldiers during the Civil War the Loretta Sister’s school thrived. Their student’s tuitions were paid through donations, and from the sister’s own inheritances from their families.

Bishop Lamy brought architect Antoine Mouly and his son from Paris, France to Santa Fe to build what is now St. Francis Cathedral. It took them ten years to complete the construction. 

During this time Lamy encouraged the Loretta Sisters to have the Mouly’s design and build their dream chapel as well. The sisters again pooled their own inheritances to raise the $30,000 required to build the chapel.

Work began on the Loretto in 1873. The Mouly’s fashioned the chapel after the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. The stain glass used was purchased from the DuBois Studio in Paris. It traveled to Santa Fe by sailing ship, paddleboat, and wagon. Construction on the chapel was completed in 1878.

During the time the Loretto Chapel was completed it was standard practice to use a ladder to get to the choir loft in churches. The Loretto Sisters found their long habits prevented them from climbing this ladder. 

Carpenters were called in to address the problem, these craftsmen all stated that a staircase would take up too much floor space in the small chapel.

Legend states the sister’s in an attempt to find a solution to the seating problem, made a novena to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters. On the ninth and final day of prayer, a man appeared at the chapel with a donkey and a toolbox looking for work. 

He used a square, saw, hammer, and water and worked in privacy. Six months later, the elegant circular staircase was completed, and the carpenter who built it by himself disappeared without thanks or collecting his pay.

The sisters searched for this carpenter, they even put an ad in the local newspaper. When they found no trace of him the sisters concluded that he was St. Joseph himself, having come to answer their prayers. 

Many still believe in this legend. In recent years several people have tried to debunk it but the more recent Sisters of Loretto have not accepted any of the new explanations for the mysterious carpenter.

When I was little the staircase was still open for visitors to walk up and down—it was originally built without the handrails that adorn it today and it is extremely steep. 

The staircase design was not only innovative for the time but this structure also enhances the aesthetic appeal of the entire chapel. The Gothic Loretto Chapel as a whole is a very beautiful place.

“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 staircase.”

Some of the design elements of the Loretto Chapel’s staircase still perplex architects, engineers, and master craftsmen today. The staircase makes over two complete 360-degree turns, stands 20 feet tall and has no center support. It rests solely on its base and against the choir loft. 

The risers of the 33 steps are all the same height. It was made from a wood that was not found anywhere in the region. Where this lumber came from is a part of the mystery for no one saw any deliveries. Glue and nails were not used in its construction just wooden square pegs.

Hundreds of thousands of people have visited the Loretto Chapel over the years to view The Miraculous Staircase. The Loretto Academy was closed in 1968—the chapel was put up for sale. In 1971, the chapel was informally deconsecrated as a Catholic chapel. Today it is run as a private museum.

1 comment:

Leona Joan said...

I believe that dear St. Joseph really did build this lovely staircase. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story, Virginia. 🌷