Skip to comments.St. Joseph and the Staircase
Posted on 03/18/2012 7:10:30 AM PDT by NYer
I decided to take the southern route while driving across the country a couple years ago. I’d never been to Santa Fe, and wanted to get a glimpse of its historical riches – especially its mission churches, which predate the ones in California (from the 1770s) I have known from my youth.
Santa Fe’s old town square district is charming and lively. Only a few blocks away from the cathedral stands one of the oldest churches in the United States – the San Miguel chapel. Its huge wooden support beams, visible throughout the interior, are as indicative of its surroundings as its adobe walls, constructed in 1610. The distinctive devotional artwork within, deriving from Spain, also seizes the eye. Its compact earthiness, relative lack of height, and dearth of windows makes it reminiscent of the Romanesque.
Only a few steps away lies the chapel of Loretto, which, by contrast, looks transplanted directly from Europe. Built in the 1870s, its style is French Gothic. In fact, it was inspired after the Sainte Chapelle in Paris. Elegant in its own right from both the exterior and interior, its real claim to fame – as I was to discover only upon visiting – is its remarkable wooden, spiral staircase.
The San Miguel Chapel
Here’s how it came to be. The recently arrived sisters of Loretto were pleased with the progress of the chapel – quite a sophisticated undertaking in such a remote corner of the new world – whose construction they had placed under the patronage of St. Joseph (whose feast day is tomorrow, by the way).
Only as construction was winding down did everyone realize that they had not devised a means for the nuns on the ground floor to access the choir loft above. They needed stairs of some sort, but given the height of the loft, a typical staircase would necessarily invade too much space below and seriously detract from its intimacy and integrity.
The sisters consulted with local carpenters, but none could provide a feasible proposal. They were in a bind. So they decided to pray a novena to St. Joseph. And on the ninth day, a man showed up on a donkey and offered to do the job. He had with him only a saw, a T-square, and a hammer. He worked alone. Accounts differ as to how long he took to complete the task, but it was likely at least several months.
The man solved the dilemma by creating a spiral staircase that made two complete 360 degree rotations. Typically such circular staircases require a vertical pole for support down the center, but he did it without one. He used no nails or screws – only wooden pegs as fasteners. At every step, the wood is perfectly curved. He’d soaked his wood in tubs of water the sisters had provided – but how exactly did he get all the curves just right?
Well, the net result, by all accounts, was a true masterpiece of craftsmanship and beauty –staggeringly produced with the most rudimentary instruments by a single, supremely skilled man.
When it was all finished, the ecstatic nuns went to pay the man. But they could not find him. He had simply left. They checked with the local lumber suppliers, thinking that at least they could pay for the wood. But they didn’t know what the sisters were talking about.
Speaking of the wood, the Mother Superior in 1960 reported: “Many experts have tried to identify the wood and where it came from. No one has ever been able to give a full report on it.” The one thing they knew by then was that this particular wood did not come from New Mexico.
Since then, a forester and wood specialist was given a sample of the wood, and spent over a year scientifically analyzing it. He produced a technical report, which I picked up in the gift shop. He was first able to determine that it was a cone-bearing evergreen, and later, a spruce. But what kind of spruce – which subspecies? Further molecular investigation revealed that it came from an extremely cold climate. This only confirmed it was definitely not local.
Ultimately, he could find no specific match in the scientific record for this particular type of wood. It has no known origin.
The St. Joseph staircase at the Loretto Chapel
There are skeptics of this entire narrative, of course. But they have not provided an irrefutable explanation for this “miraculous staircase” – as it is commonly called. The subject of television movies and specials – even an “unsolved mystery” segment (none of which I’ve seen). It remains a source of fascination and wonder.
It’s hard not to notice that the carpenter left without saying a word, just as St. Joseph is silent throughout the Scriptures. Many feel that St. Joseph himself actually built it. The sisters and the entire local Church, however, were always properly reluctant to comment definitively – saying only that they knew it was somehow an answer to their prayers.
In her autobiography, St. Teresa of Avila could not have been more effusive in testifying to St. Joseph’s capacity for intercession; she obtained through him not only healing of temporary paralysis but also countless other and what she regarded as greater benefits for her soul. She regularly took to making requests of him on his feast day, which were granted without fail or at least, as she puts it, redirected for her greater good.
Having received blessings that far exceeded what she had asked of him, she wanted to convince everyone to be devoted to St. Joseph, imploring: “I only beg, for the love of God, that anyone who does not believe me will put what I say to the test.”
That inviting challenge remains before us, with all our needs and uncertainties, to be accepted.
Beautiful and fascinating story.....
Maybe it’s a miracle. Maybe it was just a humble soul. That happens, too.
beautiful staircase, beautiful story. I have family in Taos, on my next visit, a stop in Santa Fe is now on the itinerary. Thank you.
Sitka Spruce was the wood of choice for wooden airplane construction. This is because it has the highest strength to weight ratio of all the wood species. As you can guess by its name, it grows on the island of Sitka in Alaska...
With God, anything is possible!
IMHO, truly humble souls have something of the miraculous about them :-)
I have always been fascinated by this story since I saw it on Unsolved Mysteries way back when. I think somehow there is a lesson in it for everyone about doing wonderful things for someone else even though you have only modest means.
I believe it was a miracle, though...
Wonderful story. If I’m not mistaken, however, the tiny church (it’s even tiny for a chapel) was decommissioned some time ago, like so many in Europe, and serves more as a visitor’s draw. Not an awful fate because it’s still inspiring, a living relic of this country’s first continuously occupied settlement,continuously Catholic Holy Faith.
It is definitely worth the time to visit SF and see this staircase up close. You can get right next to it to examine its construction. Then, you can head off to enjoy the local cuisine scene. Personally, I recommend Harry’s Roadhouse but there are lots of possibilities.
Just cuz it was a hanging curveball doesnt mean your batting average won’t go up.
When I was young (long ago) visitors were allowed to stand on the staircase. I’ve stood on it with people on every step at the same time.
The building is no longer a church. It is now owned by a private business that puts on weddings. That takes away a lot of the mystique. There are also physical explanations now of how the staircase is supported.
The painting in Taos that changes with lighting changes is very interesting also. It was much better when it was in the local mission church, but now has been moved to a special building. It also has lost a lot of romance and intrigue by being moved. Apparently wear and tear on the church was a problem.
The present owner is a museumand more informatin can be found here. This story was also related in an issue of finewoodworking magazin a number of years ago.
http://urbanlegends.about.com/library/bl_mysterious_staircase15.htm The subject of rumor and legend for over a hundred years, the riddle of the carpenter's identity was finally 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). His name was Francois-Jean "Frenchy" Rochas, an expert woodworker who emigrated from France in 1880 and arrived in Santa Fe right around the time the staircase was built. In addition to evidence that linked Rochas to another French contractor who worked on the chapel, Cook found an 1895 death notice in The New Mexican explicitly naming Rochas as the builder of "the handsome staircase in the Loretto chapel." This demonstrates among other things that the carpenter's identity was not a mystery to residents of Santa Fe at the time. At some point, presumably after the last remaining members of the generation of Santa Feans who witnessed the building of the Loretto Chapel firsthand passed away, Rocha's contribution to the Loretto Chapel faded from memory, and history gave way to legend. As to the mystery of the origin of the wood used in the construction of the staircase, Cook theorizes that it was imported from France -- indeed, the entire staircase may have been built start to finish in France and shipped intact to America.
Thank you very much for the detailed clarification on the staircase. Have you found an explanation anywhere in your research, as to how the mysterious stranger story began? One might conjecture the tale started as a way to introduce strangers to a wonderful, carpenter saint ... any thoughts?
I think it was an opportunity to introduce them to St. Joseph