The Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA is a former Roman Catholic church that is now used as a museum and wedding chapel. It is known for its unusual helix shaped spiral staircase (the “Miraculous Stair”), that may have been created by French carpenter Francois-Jean “Frenchy” Rochas, although the Sisters of Loretto credit St. Joseph with its construction. It has been the subject of legend and rumor, and the circumstances surrounding its construction and its builder are considered miraculous by the Sisters of Lorettoand many visitors. The story was the subject of the 1998 movie The Staircase, starring Barbara Hershey and William Petersen.
History of the staircase construction
In 1872 Jean-Baptiste Lamy, the Bishop of the Santa Fe Archdiocese, commissioned the building of a convent chapel to be named Our Lady of Light Chapel, which would be in the care of the Sisters of Loretto. The chapel was designed by French architect Antoine Mouly in the Gothic Revival style, complete with spires,buttresses, and stained glass windows imported from France. Although it was built on a much smaller scale, the chapel bears an obvious resemblance to the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.
The architect died suddenly and it was only after much of the chapel was constructed that the builders realized it was lacking any type of stairway to the choir loft. Due to the chapel’s small size, a standard staircase would have been too large. Historians have also noted that earlier churches of the period hadladders rather than stairs to the choir loft, but the Sisters did not feel comfortable with that prospect because of the long habits that they wore.
The Sisters of St. Loretto relate the story as follows:
Needing a way to get up to the choir loft the nuns prayed for St. Joseph’s intercession for nine straight days. On the day after their novena ended a shabby looking stranger appeared at their door. He told the nuns he would build them a staircase but that he needed total privacy and locked himself in the chapel for three months. He used a small number of primitive tools including a square, a saw and some warm water and constructed a spiral staircase entirely of non-native wood. The identity of the carpenter is not known for as soon as the staircase was finally finished he was gone. Many witnesses, upon seeing the staircase, feel it was constructed by St. Joseph himself, as a miraculous occurrence.
The resulting staircase is an impressive work of carpentry. It ascends twenty feet, making two complete revolutions up to the choir loft without the use of nails or apparent center support. It has been surmised that the central spiral of the staircase is narrow enough to serve as a central beam. Nonetheless there was no attachment unto any wall or pole in the original stairway, although in 1887 — 10 years after it was built — a railing was added and the outer spiral was fastened to an adjacent pillar. Instead of metal nails, the staircase was constructed using dowels or wooden pegs.
The legend claims that the mystery had never been satisfactorily solved as to who the carpenter was or where he got his lumber, and that there were no reports of anyone seeing lumber delivered or even seeing the man come and go while the construction was being done. Since he left before the Mother Superior could pay him, the Sisters of Loretto offered a reward for the identity of the man, but it was never claimed.
Explanations for the mystery
The subject of rumor and legend for over a hundred years, the riddle of the carpenter’s identity was claimed to have been solved in the late 1990s by Mary Jean Straw Cook, author of Loretto: The Sisters and Their Santa Fe Chapel (2002: Museum of New Mexico Press). The author claims the builder’s name was Francois-Jean “Frenchy” Rochas, an expert woodworker who emigrated from France and arrived in Santa Fe around the time the staircase was built, and who may have known or at least met another French contractor who worked on the Chapel. However, at only 43 years of age, Rochas met with a violent death in December 1894. Unidentified attackers had shot him and left him to die alone in his small cottage and he was found dead in 1895. Cook found a January 5, 1895, death notice in The New Mexicanwhich named Rochas as the builder of “the handsome staircase in the Loretto chapel”. Frenchman Quintus Monier told of Francois-Jean Rochas’s death at Dog Canyon, near today’s Alamogordo.
Johann Hadwiger, a German woodworker, was once credited with the design and construction of the stairs. The source of this claim, Johann’s grandson Oscar Hadwiger, later admitted he had no proof.
Some more recent studies are critical of the supposed “miraculous” nature of the staircase. It has been claimed to be unsafe since its helix shape may make it oscillate just like a very large spring. As to its apparent ability to stand without a newel (central pole) support, this argument proceeds on a faulty premise that all spiral staircases need a central support. In fact, they do not and lateral or outer supports can be effectively substituted for a central support. However, this staircase appears to have a concealed central support, an inner wood stringer of a very small radius that, because of its small size, functions effectively as a central pole. This technique is well known. The staircase also has an additional outer support to one of the columns that support the loft. This support was added later. The staircase may be made of spruce, but insufficient sampling makes it impossible to conclusively affirm (or deny) the source of this wood.
Loretto Chapel was used on a daily basis by the female students of Loretto Academy as well as by its nuns until the Academy and Chapel closed as Catholic institutions. Born in Santa Fe in 1917 (1917–2005), Mary Frances Hill (née Julian) attended the Loretto Academy from 1920 until 1935 and is considered to have attended the Academy longer than any other student and as having climbed the miraculous staircase more times than anyone else as a result of having been a member of the Academy’s choir. In 1968, after the Academy closed, the all-male St. Michael’s High School turned co-ed to accommodate the Academy’s female students.
The chapel today
The Loretto Chapel is now a museum and no longer functions as a church, but weddings may be arranged, including a highlight of the couple being photographed while standing on the spiral staircase. There is an entrance fee for the chapel. It is owned by a private company.