Fans of made-for-TV movies might recall
The Loretto Academy was a school for women founded in Santa Fe in 1852 by the local Sisters of Loretto. In 1873 construction was begun to add a chapel to the site, a project plagued by some unfortunate incidents (including the shooting death of the main architect). As the builders were finishing up work on the chapel, they found that the plans drawn up by the late architect had not included any means of access to the chapel’s choir loft. This was when, according to Alice Bullock’s book, Loretto and the Miraculous Staircase, the now-legendary events kicked in.
The notion of constructing an ordinary staircase up to the choir loft was apparently rejected both because it would have limited the available seating in the loft and because it would have been aesthetically unappealing. As Bullock described the nuns’ dilemma over how to proceed: “Carpenters and builders were called in, only to shake their heads in despair. When all else had failed, the Sisters determined to pray a novena to the Master Carpenter himself,
As Bullock’s narrative continues, the nuns’ prayers were answered on the ninth day by a humble workman leading a burro loaded with a complement of carpentry tools. The workman proclaimed that, with permission, he could resolve the dilemma, needing only a couple of water tubs to complete the task:
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. 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.
The Sisters were overjoyed and planned a fine dinner to honor the Carpenter. Only he could not be found. No one seemed to know him, where he lived, nothing. Lumberyards were checked, but they had no bill for the Sisters of Loretto. They had not sold him the wood. Knowledgeable men went in and inspected the stair and none knew what kind of wood had been used, certainly nothing indigenous to this area. Advertisements for the Carpenter were run in the New Mexican and brought no response.
“Surely,” said the devout, “it was St. Joseph himself who built the stair”
However it came to be built, the solution to the problem at the Loretto Chapel was a winding staircase in the shape of a helix (which both takes up less space than a conventional stairway and is much more aesthetically appealing). Although winding staircases are somewhat tricky to build because the form is not well-suited to bearing weight and generally requires additional support, the one at Loretto is not quite the miracle of architecture that subsequent legend has made it out to be.
For starters, the Loretto staircase was apparently not all that fine a piece of work from a safety standpoint. It was originally built without a railing, presenting a steep descent that reportedly so frightened some of the nuns that they came down the stairway on their hands and knees. Not until several years later did another artisan (Phillip August Hesch) finally add a railing to the staircase. Moreover, the helix shape acted like what it resembles, a big spring, with many visitors reporting that the stairs moved up and down as they trod them. The structure has been closed to public access for several decades now, with various reasons (including a lack of suitable fire exits and “preservation”) given for the closure at different times, leading investigator Joe Nickell to note that “There is reason to suspect that the staircase may be more unstable and, potentially, unsafe than some realize.”
Although the Loretto legend maintains that “engineers and scientists say that they cannot understand how this staircase can balance without any central support” and that by all rights it should have long since collapsed into a pile of rubble, none of that is the case. Wood technologist
As for the wood used in the stairway’s construction, it has been identified as spruce, but not a large enough sample has been made available for wood analysts to determine which of the ten spruce species found in North America (and thus precisely where) it came from. That the structure may have built without the use of glue or nails is hardly remarkable: nails were often an unavailable or precious commodity to builders of earlier eras, who developed a number of techniques for fastening wood without them.
All in all, nothing about Loretto’s design or manufacture evidences any sign of the miraculous. The staircase (and the chapel that houses it) is, however, now part of a privately-owned museum operated for profit, a situation that provides its owners with a strong financial motive for perpetuating the legend of its mysterious origins and substance.
Bullock, Alice. Loretto and the Miraculous Staircase.
Santa Fe, NM: Sunstone Press, 2001. ISBN 0-913-27080-6.
Nickell, Joe. “Helix to Heaven.”
The Skeptical Inquirer. November 1998.