The Staircase in the Loretto Chapel, Santa Fe, NM, is a sightseeing imperative.
History indicates that in the autumn of 1852, the Sisters of Loretto left Kentucky to cross the Mississippi River and head southeast to Santa Fe---a small pueblo inhabited primarily by Native American Indians and Mexicans. A few years after the Sisters' arrival, Mexican carpenters constructed a school for them, which was named the Loretto Academy of Our Lady of the Light. Then, 21 years later, these same carpenters began construction of a gothic chapel that modeled the Sainte-Chapelle de Paris, as comissioned by Archbishop Lamy. It's measurements were 25 feet by 75 feet by 85 feet in height, with a choir space in the back of the upper level. Construction was completed in 1878 at a cost of $30,000. At the point of completion, the architect, P. Mouly, noted he had made a grave error of omission in his design. There was no means to get from the ground level to the choir area on the upper level. Many carpenters were called in to contemplate constructing a staircase, but all concluded there was no way of doing so. The Sisters of Loretto were disappointed, but being of strong faith, decided not to make do anything drastic, and instead prayed to St. Joseph with the expectation that a solution to the problem would manifest.
Legend has it that on the last day of the nine-day devotional dedicated to the issue, a white-haired man with a mule and box of tools arrived asking for the sister in charge of the convent. He indicated he was sent to construct a staircase for the chapel. One account states this was done very quickly, whereas another indicates it took 8-9 months to complete. Nevertheless, it was completed, and the sisters who were present at the time of construction claim the man used only a saw, a hammer, and a framing square. They also reported seeing buckets of water everywhere with pieces of wet wood inside. When the time came for the sisters to pay the carpenter for his work, he couldn't be found. Nor could any record of purchase for the building materials be located.
The staircase, apparently left as a gift to the sisters by the constructor, is circular. It consists of 33 stairs formed in two complete spiral turns of 360 degrees each, without any central support. The upper end of the stairwell is supported against the floor of the choir space, and the lower end is supported by the chapel floor.
Only dowels, and no nails, were used in the construction. Experts from all over have been to New Mexico to inspect the stairwell. The conclusion was that the crossbeams in the curves were placed with extreme precision. The wooden pieces overlap on the inside in 7 places and on the outside in 9 places. Each piece forms part of a perfect curve. And besides this, the wood used in the construction is a very hard wood not of New Mexico origin.
The sisters of the Loretto Academy are certain that the stairwell was a response from St. Joseph to their prayers. Whether one wants to believe in miracles or not, the staircase has stood the test of time and remains an architectural wonder that has endured 85 years of use.