Lecture No. 20 – April 2015


The Loretto Chapel

Jim Russell, Lecturer
Jim Russell, Lecturer

[dropcaps] I [/dropcaps] began collecting postage stamps when I was in elementary school after inheriting collections from my father and uncle. In 1954, the post office issued a 1 ¼-cent stamp featuring “The Palace of the Governors” in downtown Santa Fe, N.M. Living in upstate New York, I figured having that stamp would be about as close as I would even come to seeing the real thing.

A few years ago, Mary and I set out on a short trip to Durango, Colo. It was my first and so far only trip to New Mexico. And, knowing our history of getting back to places, we took a short side trip to Santa Fe. While there, we recalled a story we had seen on TV a year or two earlier.

The story began in 1852, when the Sisters of Loretto answered the call of Bishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy, the newly appointed bishop of the archdiocese of Santa Fe, and opened a school in the New Mexico territory. In 1872, Bishop Lamy finally granted the request from the nearby convent and agreed to the construction of a chapel to replace the drafty, wooden building the sisters had been using.

loretto-chapel-1878-david-lee-thompsonIf memory serves me right, Our Lady of Light Chapel is located just a short walk from the central plaza. I believe the Palace of the Governors faces the plaza on the north, just to the east of the plaza is the cathedral and just a short ways to the south of the church is the chapel.

Designed by the French architect Antoine Mouly in the Gothic-Revival style, the chapel includes spires, buttresses and stained glass windows imported from France. It is said to resemble the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, although on a much smaller scale.

During construction, Monsieur Mouly suddenly passed away before it was noticed he had not provided a way to reach the choir loft,  20-22 feet above the main floor. Several experts were called in to resolve the problem only to conclude the small size of the building would not allow the addition of a staircase.

At that time, many small churches on the frontier used ladders to reach the choir loft, but Mother Superior could not envision her charges climbing a ladder to the loft, especially when considering the long habits the sisters wore, their ages and dexterity.

After much discussion and prayer, the sisters finally decided, probably in the late spring or the summer of 1878, to place their predicament in the hands of the Almighty. They began a novena asking Jesus, Mary and all the saints – especially St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters – to show them a solution. Night after night for the prescribed nine days, they prayed for a resolution to the problem of how to reach the choir loft.

Legend would have us believe that about mid-morning on the 10th day, a novice reported to Mother Superior that there was a rather scruffy, older man at the front gate asking for her. He had a small burro in tow and not much else. Always ready to help the poor, Mother Superior had the man admitted to the courtyard and ordered that water be furnished for both man and beast.

Their conversation was not recorded, but it was known that Mother Superior met with the man and he offered to build her a staircase to the choir loft. He said it would take three months, he would work alone and unobserved, and the chapel would be closed until he was finished. The sisters had nothing to lose and a belief that possibly their prayers had been answered. The man led his burro to the chapel and unloaded a crude tool box and a few simple tools – a square, a saw and some wooden mallets.

Here the story varies a little with one version saying he locked himself in the chapel and was not disturbed or seen by anyone for the stipulated three months. Another version tells us the sisters gathered at the chapel door when it was time for their evening prayers. Knowing of the agreement not to disturb the man, they began their prayers outside. Soon the door opened, and the man appeared. He and Mother Superior exchanged a few quiet words and, thereafter, the sisters were allowed inside for their morning and evening prayers, but they would avoid the area where the man was working.

The sisters entered the chapel that first evening to find wood soaking in water-filled vats that had been placed on the floor. No one could recall seeing the man carry wood, vats or water into the chapel. The man left the chapel while the sisters were praying, only to return as they were departing. Each morning and evening thereafter, the sisters would gather at the door, Mother Superior would gently knock and the man would appear allowing the sisters to enter. The same procedure was repeated each evening and morning. And so it continued for the stipulated three months.

The amazing staircase in the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe New Mexico photography by Jim CrottyThree months to the day of his arrival, the sisters gathered at the chapel door for morning prayers as they had done each morning. This morning, the door stood open as if inviting them to come inside. Inside the chapel was as clean as it had been when it first opened. There was not a wood chip nor a grain of sawdust to be found. All signs of the carpenter had vanished except for the magnificent spiral staircase that rose the 22 feet from the floor to the choir loft in two 360-degree spirals.

In 1878, the staircase had no railing and no sign of any support. In essence, it was free standing, unconnected to any other part of the building. Over the years, the staircase has been studied numerous times. It is made of some kind of wood not found in the Santa Fe area. Some have called it Gopher wood, but the best guess is Spruce, but no one knows for sure.

All connections were made using wooden pegs or dowels. There are no metal fasteners. The sisters came to believe that the 33 identical steps represent the 33 years of Christ’s life before the Crucifixion. It was also reported that, as one climbed the stairs, the staircase felt as if it was compressing slightly, much like a coil spring. In 1888, a railing was added and a brace installed, attaching the staircase to an adjacent wall.

Mother Superior had agreed, in fact insisted, that the carpenter be paid for his work. Looking at the staircase, she realized that it was worth much more than they had set aside to pay. Still, inquiries were made to try to locate the mysterious carpenter. It soon came to light that no one in Santa Fe could recall ever seeing him anywhere. The local lumber suppliers had no record of him buying or even ordering any lumber. There was no record of his lodging or eating anywhere, either. The sisters went so far as to advertise in the papers for any information about the man, even offering a reward. There were no takers.

The sisters came to the conclusion that the scruffy looking, poor old carpenter, who spoke halting Spanish and then only when he had to speak, was none other than St. Joseph himself, sent by Mary in answer to their prayers. Unfortunately, there is no way to prove that it was St. Joseph, but there is no evidence to refute it, either.

The chapel and convent school served Santa Fe until 1968, when both were closed. It is now privately owned but open to the public. A small entrance fee is charged. Surprise – there is a small gift shop where you pay your entrance fee.

When we visited, it was much the same as it probably was in 1968. You would expect Mass to start just about any moment. The chapel is also used for weddings with the added incentive of having the bridal couple photographed on the staircase. Otherwise, it is roped off.

If your wanderings ever take you to Santa Fe, and you have a few hours to spare, I would recommend a visit to the Palace of the Governors. – try not to step on the goods displayed on the sidewalk outside. The New Mexico State Museum is located adjacent to the Palace and gives insight into the settlement and history of the territory as well as the early development of the state and the city of Santa Fe.

And take a few minutes to visit the Loretto Chapel and the Miraculous Staircase.