of the Spiral Staircase
Who built this chapel’s mysterious stairs
and how do they stand without support?
Everyone marvels at the beauty of the wooden spiral staircase inside the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Thousands of visitors each year are content to enjoy the staircase as a work of art. But experts who’ve examined it shake their heads and comment: “It’s impossible. It shouldn’t even be standing.” Despite that, the staircase has stood, and been in constant use, for almost 130 years. The Sisters were convinced and many still believe today, that the craftsman was St. Joseph, himself.
by Carl R. Albach
It is recorded that more than a century ago, in the Fall of 1852, the Sisters of Loretto left Kentucky to travel up the Mississippi River to St. Louis and then on to the Southwest. During their trip of many months across the country, the Sisters suffered from many struggles, fears, privations, illnesses, and even Indian attacks. Their difficulties in establishing a convent under the direction of Bishop Lamy in Santa Fe, then a small town inhabited mostly by Indians and Mexicans, is a story in itself.
Loretto Academy History
According to Sister M. Florian in “The Inexplicable Stairs,”1 Mexican carpenters built Loretto Academy of Our Lady of Light several months after the Sisters arrived in Santa Fe. It was not until some 20 years later that construction began on a Gothic chapel that was patterned, at the request of Bishop Lamy, after the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. The chapel, which was designed by architect P. Mouly, was to be 25 feet wide, 75 feet long, and 85 feet tall, with a choir loft in the rear. Sister Barbour states2 that the construction was begun on July 25, 1873, and completed about 5 years later at a cost of $30,000.
It was not until the structure was nearly finished that a terrible mistake was discovered. Both chapel and choir loft were beautiful, but there was no way to get from one to the other. And because of the height of the loft, a conventional stairway would take up too much room in the chapel. The Superior called in many carpenters, but each in turn said that it was impossible to build a suitable staircase. It was a question of either using a ladder or rebuilding the balcony.
The Sisters, of course, were quite disappointed, but being women of great Faith, they decided to wait and make a novena. Since the Sisters of Loretto are greatly devoted to St. Joseph, it seemed only natural to turn to him in this dilemma.
On the last day of the novena a gray-haired man with a donkey and a tool chest stopped at the Academy. When he asked if he could build a stairway for the Sisters, the Mother Superior gladly consented.
One account states that the work was done very quickly, while another claims that it took 6 to 8 months. According to the Sisters then present, the only tools the old man used were a saw, a T-square, and a hammer. They also saw pieces of wood soaking in basins. The man mysteriously disappeared before he could be paid, and even the local lumber yard had no record of any wood being purchased for the project.
Circular Staircase Construction
The stairway, which the builder apparently left as a gift to the Sisters, is circular, consisting of 33 steps and two complete turns of 360 degrees each. Unlike most wooden circular staircases, it has no center support. It rests against the loft at the top and on the floor at the bottom, where the entire weight appears to rest. Wooden pegs, rather than nails, were used throughout.
Through the years, architects and builders from all over the world have come to inspect this masterpiece of beauty and construction. They never fail to marvel over how it was built, and how it manages to still be standing. Some have felt that it should have collapsed the first time it was used, yet it has withstood daily use for many years.
Among the students who attended the Academy when the staircase was built was a girl of thirteen who later became a Sister of Loretto. She often spoke of how she and her friends were so eager to climb to the loft that they were among the first to do so. When they got to the top, however, they were so frightened that they had to come down on their hands and knees. This is because the railing, itself a work of art, was not part of the original construction, but was added about two years later.
Some experts are especially baffled by the great precision of the construction of the curved stringers. The wood is spliced in seven places on the inside and in nine places on the outside, with each piece forming part of a perfect curve. How this was done in the 1870’s by one man with only the most primitive tools has never been explained. Furthermore, the wood seems to be of a hard variety, and according to some experts on wood, is not native to New Mexico. Where the man could have obtained it is still a mystery.
Coiled Spring Effect
In connection with the redesign of the main electrical service for this building, which incidentally came into the attic space above the choir loft, I climbed the stairway a number of times. Each time I felt a slight vertical movement, as if the two 360 degree turns were taken out of a large coiled spring. The present Superior, in discussing the history of this modern wonder, told me that during the few times she had occasion to climb the stairs, she, too, had noted a certain amount of springiness. Perhaps this is a part of the secret of its construction.
The Sisters of Loretto Academy feel sure that this staircase was the answer to their prayers to St. Joseph, although they are hesitant to make bold statements about occurrences of this kind. Some even feel that the carpenter was St. Joseph himself.
One cannot help but be impressed by its architectural beauty, its engineering design, and its sound construction, which has withstood the test of time. As one gazes upon it and realizes it is the work of an old carpenter with only a few basic tools, it really does seem to be a miracle.
If you visit Santa Fe ... the Loretto Chapel is located at:
207 Old Santa Fe Trail, Santa Fe, NM 87501
For details call (505) 982-0092
or visit its web site: http://www.lorettochapel.com
1. Sister M. Florian, O.S.F., “The Inexplicable Stairs”, St. Joseph Magazine, April 1960.
2. sister Richard Marie Barbour, S.L., Light in Yucca Land, Centennial Commemorative Volume, Schifani Brothers Printing Co., Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1952.