In the heart of Santa Fe, New Mexico, stands the Loretto Chapel, home of a famous spiral staircase said to have been built by a divine stranger who was passing through in 1878. Unsolved Mysteries did a piece on it, and there’s even a 1998 made-for-TV film, The Staircase.
According to the legend, the chapel, which was stationed at the end of the Santa Fe Trail, was completed without a set of stairs leading to the choir loft. The Sisters of the Chapel were uncomfortable with their practice of climbing a ladder to the loft before mass, as it allowed any passerby the opportunity to look up their habits. Plans to install a standard staircase were rejected, since the chapel was fairly small, and space was limited as it was.
To solve the problem, the nuns began a nine-day novena to St. Joseph, patron of carpenters, in the hopes that he would give them some sort of solution. On the final day, out of nowhere, a man with a donkey and a box of tools appeared, looking for work.
The mystery man agreed to build a spiral staircase that would take up little space and be an inspiration to all who saw it. The only stipulation: he would be given complete privacy and solitude until the project’s completion.
A few months later, the staircase was unveiled to the oohs and ahhs of the chapel’s Sisters, but the carpenter was nowhere to be found. Wishing to pay him, or at least give thanks, they even put out an ad in the local paper requesting any information on his whereabouts or his identity, but with no luck.
The only possible answer: the man was St. Joseph, himself, visiting the chapel in response to the fervent prayers said in his name.
I wasn’t so sure, and decided to investigate the place, myself.
I only live an hour from Santa Fe, but I’ve been avoiding the place like the plague. I’ve heard that it’s overrun with hippies, and I have a sensitive gag reflex. Within two minutes of crossing the city limits, I am greeted with proof that my worries are more than intellectual artifacts. Standing at a crosswalk, a bearded man with waist-long gray hair and a tie-dyed tee shirt sporting the peace symbol holds up a hand-written sign proclaiming that “War is a racket.” He’s in the midst of a one-man protest. While I drive passed, he exchanges the sign for another from the stack at his feet: “Keep the government out of my womb.”
It becomes apparent, though, that he may be the sole source of the terrifying rumors, the rest of the town being more of a yuppie haven for posh tourists and visiting Hollywood royalty than a hippie commune.
The Loretto Chapel, itself, sits like some polished Gothic ornament between shops busting with over-priced turquoise jewelry and high-end spas. On the sidewalks, Native Americans sit beside blankets laden with home-made jewelry for sale to tourists, their bored stares and disinterest in the passing throngs giving the impression that their real jobs are to lend the street an air of authenticity.
I’m overwhelmed by the Disneyland finish of this supposedly historically rich area, and am relieved to finally slink into the dark entryway of the chapel. It’s cool and quiet, with a smell of old plaster under lemony cleaner. As my eyes adjust to the subdued light, I’m faced with a sign informing me of the three dollar admission price. Visa and Mastercard accepted.
The lack of a “suggested donation” on the sign reminds me that the place is no longer the property of the Catholic Church, but was sold to a “private company” in 1971. Ever since, the chapel has been used solely for tourist viewings (approximately 250,000 visitors every year) and wedding ceremonies, the smallest package, allowing for the officiant and two witnesses, costing $950.
After paying, I enter the chapel proper and am immediately faced with an incredible statue of Christ, one hand to his heart, one open toward me. The blood dripping from his palms looks fresh. The sanctuary is impressive, especially for such a small structure. The altar, to my right, is made of plaster, painted to resemble marble, and made up of the Gothic trimmings that the chapel favors. There are numerous stained glass windows, shipped in from Paris and originally installed in 1878. Along the walls of the nave, a series of statues depicting the fourteen stations of the cross in agonizing detail.
The staircase itself, though beautiful, could easily be missed amongst the rest, if it weren’t for the velvet ropes, keeping out the throng of older women bombarding it with their camera flashes. It actually does get an, “Oh, wow,” from me as my eyes follow the helix up to the loft above. For some reason, my gaze ignores the ornate hand carvings along its side and the handrail (added in 1887 by Phillip August Hesch after complaints from the nuns, who had begun to climb on hands and knees out of fear of falling off), and is instead drawn to the smooth bottom, winding upward like a ribbon.
From speakers on the walls, dueling voices repeat the legend on a loop. They tell me that an army of “architects, engineers, and scientists” can’t explain how the staircase can stand without a central support or how the entire thing was built without nails. Apparently they’d never heard of physics and don’t have access to the internet.
Tim Carter, of the Washington Post, explains that the steps of the staircase lay on two “stringers,” or beams. When stepping on these, a person’s weight is transferred to the stringers, and then to the ground they are connected to. It works in the exact same way as a staircase found in an average home, only twisted into a spiral shape.
This may also be the answer as to why the staircase has been closed to visitors, as it should act as a large spring, bouncing up and down with each step, which would have slowly deteriorated the wood over the years. The owners site the lack of proper fire exits in the loft and the need for preservation in the face of “constant traffic” as the reason for closing it off, but it seems more likely that instability is the real issue, here.
The recorded voices also tell me excitedly that, though the Sisters of the Chapel searched far and wide, there was never a trace of the missing carpenter. They must never have come across a book called “Loretto: The Sisters and Their Santa Fe Chapel” by Mary Jean Straw Cook, who found the 1895 obituary of Francois-Jean Rochas in the local New Mexican newspaper which described him as the builder of “the handsome staircase in the Loretto chapel.” She also found an 1881 entry from a chapel logbook: “Paid for wood Mr Rochas, $150.00.”
On the way out, I start feeling down. The exit forces me through a gift shop, and I pick up a plastic rosary priced at $5.95. It seems there was no miracle at all, and the owners are just perpetuating the legend to keep attendance up.
While attempting to squeeze an “I told you so” out, I’ve cornered a guide on break to explain the meaning of an obscure symbol from one of the chapel’s art pieces to my wife. He refers to the Catholic Church as “we,” implying a connection. I ask who owns the place, and he looks at me out of the corner of his eye and says, “A private family.”
The walk to the car is full of grumbling.
But I don’t stay mad for long. There may actually have been a miracle in there, somewhere. Because of a legend, I drove all the way into a city I was avoiding to see an amazing piece of art I would never have paid attention to otherwise.
After all, who drives an hour and pays six dollars to look at stairs?
A dummy. That’s who.
Photos by J. Rodriguez Grisham