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Santa Fe is the oldest capital city in New Mexico, US. But it is not just the age of the city that makes it a popular destination. In the center of the city stands an architectural landmark, a former Roman Catholic Church , which is known as the Loretto chapel. The church was built in the 1870s and it has a French gothic style , but unlike other chapels where you admire the paintings, statues, stained glass , and masonry skills, this chapel is famous for its helix spiral staircase , otherwise called the “Miraculous Stairs.”
Legend of the Loretto Chapel Staircase Miracle
According to legend, which has since been made into a movie called “The Staircase” (1998), the nuns of the Loretto Chapel that were there when it was being built realized at some point that they had to find a way to build a staircase to connect the choir loft to the ground floor. They didn’t want the staircase to be big because it would take up too much space, so they went to get advice from the local carpenters -but no one could provide a feasible solution.
Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA. ( eickys /Adobe Stock)
According to the historical account, a short time later a man arrived and offered to do the job but he asked to be alone in the chapel for three months, and with only simple tools including a saw, T-square, and a hammer, he built the ‘miraculous’ staircase. It is a spiral staircase making two complete 360 degrees rotations but without using a central pole and without using any nails, only wooden pegs.
The bannister of the staircase is perfectly curved, a remarkable accomplishment considering the basic tools that were used. The shape of the helix is not a stable weight-supporting structure, and without the middle column it shouldn’t be able to withstand the weight of people using the staircase.
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When the man finished the staircase, he left without asking for a cent. The nuns tried to find him but they could not. They did not know who he was and where he got the wood from. 10 years later the railing was added to the staircase by Phillip August Heasch – for safety reasons.
Later on, the manager of the privately owned chapel (1991-2006), Richard Lindsley, took a piece of wood from the staircase and sent it for analysis to find out what kind of wood it was. When the results came back, they showed that it was spruce, but of an unknown subspecies. This specific wood was very strong with dense and square molecules - which is something that you usually find in trees that grow very slowly in very cold places like Alaska.
However, there was no such wood in the area and no local trees grow in the Alpine tundra in the surrounding area. The closest place that he would find this density in trees was in Alaska, but of course back then transport was not the same as it is now and wood was not transported over such long distances.
Were the Stairs Created by a Man from a French Secret Society?
Santa Fe New Mexican offers an alternative explanation for the amazing staircase. It’s said that when historian Mary J. Straw Cook researched the stairs for a book she was writing, she “found information in an 1881 nun’s daybook that a man named Rochas was paid for wood.” Francois-Jean Rochas, an alleged “member of a French secret society of highly skilled craftsmen and artisans called the Compagnons, which had existed since the Middle Ages ” has been named as the skilled woodworker who apparently “came to the U.S. with the purpose of building the staircase with wood shipped from France.”
When a group of stair-building professionals convened at the Loretto Chapel a few years ago to see the staircase they were shocked at the beauty, design, and engineering of the stairs. A couple of their comments on the workmanship after analyzing the stairs are: “We all like to think we create creative stair designs and nice curved staircases, but to think how they did it that long ago and still attain the same quality is breathtaking” and
“One hundred and fifty years ago it took a very well-trained, seasoned, experienced master craftsman. We have been building them for centuries like this. The fact that somebody showed up out of the desert might be a miracle, but he knew exactly what he was doing.”
Miraculous staircase, Loretto chapel. Santa Fe, NM. (Alain Secretan (ASITRAC) / CC BY NC SA 2.0 )
Miracles through History
The nuns of the Loretto Chapel have attributed the staircase to a miracle, a divine event that seems to transcend natural law, and they believed that the man who came to create the staircase was a man sent from heaven. While the account of the mysterious helix staircase of Loretto is a relatively modern-day legend associated with a miracle, reports of miracles go back thousands of years and can be found in virtually every religion and culture around the world.
During the first century BC, a variety of religious movements and splinter groups developed amongst the Jews in Judea. A number of individuals claimed to be miracle workers in the tradition of Elijah and Elisha, the ancient Jewish prophets. The Talmud provides some examples of such Jewish miracle workers, one of whom is Honi HaM'agel, who was famous for his ability to successfully pray for rain.
Elisha sees Elijah taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire. ( Public Domain )
In Buddhism too, there are texts that speak of miracles. The biographies of High Monks record that King Beopheung of Silla had desired to promulgate Buddhism as the state religion. However, officials in his court opposed him.
In the 14th year of his reign, Beopheung's "Grand Secretary", Ichadon, devised a strategy to overcome court opposition. Ichadon set up a scenario which would result in his capture and eventual execution. He prophesied to the king that at his execution a wonderful miracle would convince the opposing court faction of Buddhism's power.
Ichadon's scheme went as planned. According to the story, when Ichadon was executed on September 15th, 527 AD, his prophecy was fulfilled; the earth shook, the sun was darkened, beautiful flowers rained from the sky, his severed head flew to the sacred Geumgang mountains, and milk instead of blood sprayed 100 feet (30.48 meters) in the air from his beheaded corpse.
The Monk Ichadon. ( Public Domain )
The omen was accepted by the opposing court officials as a manifestation of heaven's approval, and Buddhism was made the state religion in 527 AD.
Later, in the 1600s, the saint and mystic St. Joseph of Cupertino entered into a religious trance and reportedly began hovering over the crowds. He apparently experienced this levitation multiple times — one time in front of Pope Urban VIII . As a result of his flying exploits, this mystic is the patron saint of pilots.
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Though not strictly a miracle, the Shroud of Turin is one of the most famous relics in history. The textile is allegedly the burial shroud of Jesus and contains an imprint of his face. Subsequent research has revealed that at least parts of the relic date to medieval times , suggesting it was an elaborate hoax. However, follow-up research found the shroud could be much older — dating to between 280 BC to 220 AD.
Belief in miracles has existed from as long as history has been recorded up until the present day. However, as scientific progress has marched forward, many apparent miracles have wound up having scientific explanations. Others have shown to be elaborate hoaxes. Nevertheless, despite scientific progress, there are still many miraculous phenomena that have not yet been explained.
Who Built The Helix Staircase of Loretto Chapel?
When the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico has the main attraction. Many people go to churches to look at the paintings, statues, and structures. The thing most people come to see is the Helix Staircase that was built by a mysterious stranger. At first, it was a mystery of how the staircase stood, but now people know that it's because of the physics of the staircase. Now the mystery still lies in who the kind stranger was and where did the spruce wood he used come from.
Here's a bit of history of the Chapel first.
The story of the Loretto Chapel began in 1850. Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy saw a need to educate girls in the New Mexico Territory. Six Sisters were sent to start Loretto Academy for Girls. The sisters also had to learn Spanish as that was a language spoken in the territory. In 1853 when they arrived in Santa Fe the school was opened.
It wasn't until 20 years later in 1873 when they were able to start constructing the Chapel. The Chapel was inspired by French architecture, specifically of Sainte Chapelle in Paris. By 1878 the Architect of the structure had died before finishing the choir loft 22 feet high. Unfortunately, a staircase would have taken up too much floor space and the Chapel had no money to redo it.
It is said that the sisters did a nine-day novena to Saint Joseph the Saint of Carpenters for a miracle. On the final day their prayers were answered, a carpenter appeared. He arrived with a carpenters square and hammers, and he used wooden pegs instead of nails. His only rule for the job was that he was to do it in private. He had completed his job and left just as mysteriously as he arrived.
When the sisters saw the finished product they were shocked. The staircase has two 360 degree turns and has no center pole for support. It was exactly what they needed. It didn't take too much room and the choir loft was useful. later a railing was added so that it was easier to climb. The sisters searched to find out what kind of wood he used, but it turns out to not have been native to the area.
The Sisters were thankful for the stranger. Some believed that it was Saint Joseph himself or someone sent in by Saint Joseph. All that is known is that the Sisters prayers were answered.
The Baffling Mystery Of Loretto Chapel Staircase
You perhaps have heard of it, the staircase at Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where – according to the literature – nuns who operated a convent there began a novena to Saint Joseph, patron of carpenters and builders, when they needed a way to easily traverse up to the choir loft, which previously had been accessed by a ladder.
Their dilemma was that there was no room for a stairway as normal stairways go. A flurry of carpenters they consulted had said so.
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According to accounts, on the last day of the novena, a gray-haired man came to the convent with a donkey and a tool chest — basically, a saw, a hammer, and a square. He also needed tubs to soak wood.
They gave him the job, and he set about the work on July 25, 1873, taking what is now estimated as six to eight months to complete it. Only wood pegs (no nails) were used. And the result was exquisite.
“The winding stairway that the old man left for the sisters is a masterpiece of beauty and wonder,” noted St. Joseph Magazine.
“It makes two complete 360-degree turns. There is no supporting pole up the center as most circular stairways have. This means it hangs there with no support. 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 was used daily for nearly a hundred years.”
Indeed, there are photos of the staircase filled with members of the choir!
When the sisters went to pay the man, continues the account, he had vanished. There is no record of paying anyone a penny for the incredible piece of carpentry.
We have had an article on this previously. “I spoke with Urban C. Weidner, a Santa Fe architect and wood expert, about the staircase,” noted Sister M. Florian.
“He told me that he had never seen a circular wooden stairway with 360-degree turns that did not have a supporting pole down the center. One of the most baffling things about the stairway, however, is the perfection of the curves of the stringers, according to Mr. Weidner. He told me that the wood is spliced along the sides of the stringers with nine splices on the outside and seven on the inside. Each piece is perfectly curved. How this came about in the 1870s by a single man in an out-of-the-way place with only the most primitive tools has never been explained.”
Indeed, it is a gorgeous piece of woodwork – now with banisters (it was originally constructed without any).
An angel? St. Joseph himself?
“Sisters, going in to the Chapel to pray, saw the tubs with wood soaking in them, but the man always withdrew while they said their prayers, returning to his work when the Chapel was free,” says another account.
“Some there are who say the circular stair which stands there today was built very quickly. Others say no, it took quite a little time. But the stair did grow, rising solidly in a double helix without support of any kind and without nail or screw. The floor space used was minimal and the stair adds to, rather than detracts from, the beauty of the chapel.”
Some claim 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).
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.
“I went to the top of the stairs,” Lindsley told Spirit Daily. “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. 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.
Mysteries of the Miraculous Staircase at the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe
Three mysteries surround the Miraculous Staircase at the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe: who built it, the engineering behind its construction, and the materials used.
History of the Loretto Chapel
In 1869, Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy hired two French architects Antoine Mouly and his son Projectus to construct the mother church of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. Lamy allowed the Sisters to make use of the architect’s services on the side to construct a chapel for the Loretto Girls’ Academy. Projectus became the principal architect of the chapel, inspiring his design from the famous Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, with French imported stained-glass windows dominating the chapel. Officially consecrated in 1878, the chapel’s Gothic design featured spires and buttresses, with locally quarried sandstone. Projectus suddenly died in 1879 before completing access to the choir loft.
Jesus in the Loretto Chapel © Janie Pace
The Story of the Miraculous Staircase
The Sisters consulted several carpenters regarding stairway access to the choir loft, but all concluded that a ladder would take up less seating space in the chapel. To find a solution, the sisters prayed a novena to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters. On the ninth and final day, a man appeared at the chapel with a toolbox and donkey looking for work. Several months later, the carpenter finished a remarkably elegant circular staircase, then quietly disappeared without pay or gratitude.
The carpenter built the 20-foot tall staircase with two 360 degree turns and no visible means of support, seeming to defy physics, using wooden pegs and glue, no nails. There were questions about the type of wood used as well as the number of stair risers relating to the height of the choir loft. The sisters viewed the finished staircase as a miracle and imagined the builder as St. Joseph himself.
The handrails were added later in 1887 by another craftsman Phillip August Hesch as well as an iron support bracket.
Mysterious Staircase in Loretto Chapel © Janie Pace
Engineering of the Staircase
One of the miracle aspects of the staircase is the lack of the newel or center pole usually constructed to support and stabilize a spiral staircase. The compact stair stringers or outer and inner stair sides twist into a helix or spiral. The inside stringer with overlapping segments joined by wood glue created a laminate, that initiated more substantial center support. The staircase held a significant amount of weight, based on a photograph taken about 1959 of at least a dozen choir members posing on the stairs. Ash, a wood not native to the area of Santa Fe, was used in the construction of the staircase. There were 33 stair risers, the age Jesus was when he died on the cross.
Mysterious Staircase with window © Janie Pace
Identity of the Carpenter
In the early 2000s, amateur historian Mary Jean Cook found evidence of the probable carpenter as Francois-Jean “Frank” or “Frenchy” Rochas (1843-1894), who came to New Mexico from France around the 1870s. Cook also found an entry in the Sisters’ ledger, noting that Rochas was paid $150 for wood in 1881 (equal to $3,974 in 2019), confirming a construction job he performed. A short article in the Santa Fe New Mexican in early 1895 reported the murder of Rochas: “he was a Frenchman favorably known in Santa Fe as an expert worker in wood.” The article stated that he constructed the magnificent staircase in the Loretto chapel and a stairway at St. Vincent sanitarium. At his death, he owned a comprehensive set of carpentry tools, including a pair of trammel points for drawing large circles, saws, clamps, planes, gauges, chisels, braces, drills, bits, and a reamer.
One of the Stained Glass Windows © Janie Pace
Regarding the Miraculous Staircase, there are many amazing stories, TV specials, including “Unsolved Mysteries,” as well as a movie entitled “The Staircase,” starring Barbara Hershey and William Petersen.
Formerly a Roman Catholic Church serving the sisters of Loretto for their girls’ school, the church is now privately owned and used as a museum and a wedding chapel. A small entrance fee and profits from the gift shop help maintain the historic chapel.
Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe: a Church or a Museum?
From its name, we know that Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe is a church. But what was a Roman Catholic church, now it is used as a museum and a wedding chapel.
Loretto Chapel is known for its unusual spiral staircase that has two 360 degrees turns and no visible means of support. It is also said that the staircase was built without nails, only wooden pegs.
The History of the Miraculous Staircase in Loretto Chapel
Loretto Chapel was built in 1878 without access to the choir loft twenty-two feet above. The Sisters of the Chapel asked carpenters around for solutions but all said it needed a ladder as a staircase would interfere with the interior of this small Chapel. Then they 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 started the work and completed the staircase to the choir loft. But the carpenter disappeared without pay and thanks once his work had done. The Sisters searched for the man with no trace, and some believed that he was St. Joseph the carpenter himself, having come in answer to the sisters’ prayers.
The Beautiful Loretto Chapel
Like most churches built in the 1800s, Loretto Chapel has a Gothic architecture style. When I walked into the chapel, I felt like I walked into one of the buildings in Gotham City. But peaceful was what I felt once inside the chapel.
The miraculous staircase stood magnificently at the back of the chapel. People lit candles and said their prayers. The stained glasses added a touch of beauty to this chapel. No wonder it’s one of the favorite places for a wedding. Even it doesn’t function as a church anymore, everybody kept their voices low to respect others who came for a quiet time.
Tips for visiting Loretto Chapel:
– Chapel may close without notice for special events call ahead to make sure it’s open.
– Visit when they just open to beat the crowd.
– You can only see the staircase you can’t climb it.
Loretto Chapel Hours:
Monday-Thursday: 9.30 am – 4.30 pm
Friday-Saturday: 9.30 am – 5.00 pm
Loretto Chapel admission fee: $5. Children 6 and under: Free.
Address: 207 Old Santa Fe Trail, Santa Fe, NM 87501 (505) 982-0092.
Wedding Information: Call (505) 982-0092. Email [email protected]
Next to the chapel is the museum store where you can find things like chapel souvenirs, rosaries, Christmas decorations with New Mexico design, home decorations, Christian jewelry, and other religious items.
A visit to Loretto Chapel doesn’t really take much of your time. You must check out this 50 things to do in Santa Fe to make your visit in town more fun and memorable.
Prairie Rose Publications
Within the well-preserved and quiet walls of Loretto Chapel in Santa Fé, New Mexico, is a staircase steeped in two mysteries that, for many people, have yet to be solved:
1. Who built the staircase?
2. How is its construction possible?
The Miraculous Staircase, as it is called, was built during a six-month period sometime between 1877 and 1881. To understand the story of the staircase, we must understand a little about the chapel’s history the vision of its founding the courage and determination of the people dedicated to its success and the unwavering faith of these pioneering spirits.
Loretto Chapel’s story begins in 1853 and ends in 1971 when it became a private museum for the primary reason of preserving the Miraculous Staircase and the chapel.
Here is the truncated version of the chapel’s history from the chapel’s website**:
*Bishop Jean Baptisite Lamy appointed to Church in Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory.
*Bishop Lamy begins letter writing plea for priests, brothers and nuns to come out and help him.
*Sisters of Loretto send seven sisters from Kentucky.
*Sisters leave St. Louis and travel to Independence, Missouri.
*Encounter cholera epidemic, Mother Superior dies, and one nun is too ill to continue and returns.
1853 - 1873
*Sisters open Academy of Our Lady of Light (Loretto).
*From small school numbers to 300 students (girls) in a short period of time.
*Tuition, donations, and from the sisters own inheritances ($30,000) fund the school and chapel.
*Property is purchased, work on Loretto Chapel begins.
*School facilities cover a square block with 10 buildings.
*Architects from Paris design Loretto Chapel in the gothic style of King Louis IX's Sainte-Chapelle.
|Loretto Chapel choir loft|
*Stained glass is purchased in Paris, arrives by ship in New Orleans, goes by paddle boat to St. Louis, and then travels by covered wagon via Old Santa Fe Trail.
|Loretto Chapel altar|
*Chapel is completed.
*No access to the choir loft twenty-two feet above the main floor except by ladder.
*Due to limited space within the chapel, there isn’t room for a staircase.
|Loretto Chapel staircase and confessional|
*Staircase is built – without a railing.