The Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is a former Roman-Catholic church, that is privately owned today and it is used as a wedding chapel and a museum. The most remarkable part of the chapel is definitely its spiral staircase.
The construction of the chapel began in 1873. Renowned French architect Antoine Mouly was brought from France and entrusted with the chapel’s design and construction. Unfortunately, Mouly’s sudden death prevented him from completing the project. In 1878, when the chapel was almost complete, it was discovered that there were no means of access to the choir loft.
The Sisters of Loretto, a religious order assigned to care for the chapel, called several carpenters to try and find a solution. It was proposed that instead of a stairway, which would interfere with the chapel’s interior space, a ladder should be built. After refusing the ladder as an inappropriate solution, the sisters started praying to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters.
It is said that on the ninth day of prayer, a man appeared in the chapel looking for work, equipped with only a toolbox. A few months later, the construction was completed. The result was a 22 feet tall spiral staircase with 33 steps (Jesus’s age when he was crucified), that makes two 360 degree turns.
The carpenter disappeared without being paid. Some of the Sisters believed that he was St. Joseph himself, who after hearing the prayer, came to their aid.
Another mysterious aspect of the staircase was the construction itself. It was constructed without using nails or glue, only wooden pegs. It is built without the usual central column or support beams. The wood used for the staircase wasn’t native to the Santa Fe region, which was also a curiosity at the time.
Author and historian Mary J. Straw Cook researched documents connected to the chapel and discovered that the woodworker who built the staircase was a Frenchman by the name of Francois-Jean Rochas. She found an article in a newspaper about Rochas’s death and that he was the craftsman behind the beautiful staircase. Cook also found an entry in the Sisters’ books that revealed a payment for wood to Rochas. Rochas came to the States exclusively for the staircase and brought the wood from France.
Master carpenter Christopher Francis Ocean explained the mystery behind the support of the staircase and the lack of a central column:
“a simple staircase has two beams, called stringers, and the treads of the staircase rest on these beams or are connected to them…the weight of the staircase [is] transferred to where the two stringers touch the floor. The only difference with the staircase at the Loretto Chapel is these beams or stringers have been twisted into a helix.”
Loretto staircase, the railing was added several years later Photo credit
Although the mysteries are explained, nobody argues that the staircase is a magnificent piece of work. Its construction would be a challenge today, let alone in the 19th century, using only simple tools. The story of the Loretto staircase served as an inspiration for a television film and a book.