There are many mysteries among the Southwest of the United States. Some sceneries are almost haunting in their beauty. But there are buildings that do not lack the same fascination. Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe/New Mexico is one of them.
Originally the settlement of Santa Fe was dedicated to the faith of Francis di Assisi and was founded in 1610 by the Spanish. Bishop Jean Baptisite Lamy was appointed to the territory in 1850 and he was determined to spread not only faith but education as well in the area. Hence he wrote back to Europe asking for priests, nuns and monks to move to the new world to start a missionary base. The first ones to actually answer his plea were the Sisters of Loretto. They sent seven sisters to face the long journey to New Mexico but mother superior died of cholera somewhere in Lousiana on the way and another sister got so sick she could not continue the journey.
However the remaining five sisters arrived in Santa Fe in 1852 and opened the Academy of Our Lady of Light (Loretto) in1853. The school soon grew into a size of around 300 students, despite the challenges of the territory (smallpox, tuberculosis, leaky mud roofs and even troubles with some rowdy Confederate Texans during the Civil War). The sisters built 10 buildings on campus and even the chapel and a big chunk of the necessary money was taken from the sister´s private heritage and that of their families in Spain. They pooled together around 30´000 $ which was a fortune those days.
The sandstone for the walls and the porous volcanic stone used for the ceiling were hauled to town by wagon from Colorado. Even the ornate stained glass was actually imported all the way from Paris in 1876. The Chapel was completed in 1878 and has since seen many additions and renovations such as the introduction of the Stations of the Cross, the Gothic altar and beautiful frescos during the 1890s. However one problem remained. When the Loretto Chapel was completed in 1878, there was no way to access the choir loft twenty-two feet above hence they had a seating problem in the small chapel.
The nuns tried to use a ladder but they were scared and danger of falling to death could not be ignored. Accidents had occurred already. Carpenters were called to find a solution but the chapel was too small and building stairs would have been way too space consuming in the small chapel. So all carpenters of the area denied the job.
Since Holy St. Joseph is known as the saint for all carpenters the nuns prayed many days in a row that he may send them the idea for a solution. On the 9th and final day of the prayer an unknown man appeared with his donkey and a small tool box and asked them for work, claiming he was a carpenter. Around six months later he disappeared overnight without a single word and was never to be seen again. The nuns searched for him even by newspaper add. They wanted to pay him for what he had created.
What he left behind was is a marvelous and beautiful spiral staircase that takes two total 360 Degrees turns. No nails have been found and no center support. The stairway confounds architects, engineers and master craftsmen. It stands 20’ tall and rests solely on its base and against the choir loft. The risers of the 33 steps are all of the same height. It is held together by square wooden pegs without glue or any nails and by the physical law of statics.
It seems as if the weight of each single step carries the construction and keeps it together. Originally there were no banisters.
They wear added later. So there is no hidden support in the banisters either. What kind of wood the carpenter used is unknown up to this day and nobody knows where the mysterious carpenter got the wood from. Scientists believe it is of an extinct tree.
Nowadays the Chapel is a private museum after having being sold in 1968. Sadly it is not part of the Roman Catholic Church anymore since 1971. Admission fee is 3$. Many do not want to pay that small amount and miss one of the greatest mysteries in Santa Fe area. Loretto Chapel is often used for weddings as well.
I have been there twice so far and the second time I made it a point to bring my husband along. He himself is a brilliant carpenter with over 30 years of experience who has built many stairs, including spiral stairs. I did not tell him what was so special in this chapel but just let him walk right into it. He stood there and could not believe his eyes. He spend an hour walking around the stairs not only marveling at the beauty of it but also at the innovative construction.
He simply said “This is a miracle and from the point of carpenter construction plans not really possible but I see it with my own eyes”.
So maybe the legend tells the truth. Maybe it really was Saint Joseph, father of Jesus answering the prayers of five nuns who travelled across the world to spread the word of God.