The Mysterious Staircase of the Loretto Chapel

Does it stand without any support?

Loretto Chapel staircase

Marcia Straub / Getty Images

Erected between 1873 and 1878 on the grounds of the Academy of Our Lady of Light, a Catholic girls school in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the Loretto Chapel stands out to this day as a rare example of Gothic Revival architecture in a landscape dominated by Pueblo and adobe. It was commissioned by Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy and designed by French architect Antoine Mouly with the help of his son, Projectus, who were said to have modeled it on the historic Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.

Since the elder Mouly was infirm and going blind at the time, actual construction of the chapel fell to Projectus, who by all accounts did a creditable job until he himself fell ill with pneumonia. (According to a different account, he was shot by Archbishop Lamy's nephew, who suspected Mouly of philandering with his wife and died.) It is here that the so-called "legend of the miraculous staircase" begins.

The Construction of the Miraculous Staircase

Despite Mouly's death, the main work on the chapel was completed in 1878. The builders were left with a quandary, however: there was no means of access to the choir loft, little or no room for a staircase, and no one had the slightest idea how Mouly had intended to address the challenge. Unsatisfied with the prevailing opinion that a ladder would have to suffice, the Sisters of Loretto sought divine assistance by praying a novena to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters. On the ninth day of prayer, a stranger appeared with a donkey and a toolbox. He said he needed work and offered to build a staircase.

Build one he did, and the glistening, all-wood structure is a marvel to behold, spiraling upward 22 feet from floor to loft in two 360-degree turns without any evident means of support. The ingenious carpenter not only solved the problem of floor space, but in so doing designed a structure whose beauty actually enhanced the aesthetic appeal of the entire chapel.

When the sisters went to thank him, he was gone. No one even knew his name. "After searching for the man (and running an ad in the local newspaper) and finding no trace of him," says the Loretto Chapel Website, "some concluded that he was St. Joseph himself who came in answer to the sisters' prayers."

The miracle, then, is twofold: one, the staircase was built by a nameless stranger -- possibly St. Joseph himself -- who seemingly appeared in answer to a prayer and disappeared just as mysteriously. And two: Though built entirely of wood with no nails, screws or metal of any kind -- and lacking any kind of central support -- the staircase was structurally sound and still stands today.

Either way you look at it, however, the so-called miracle of the staircase crumbles under scrutiny.

Who Really Built It?

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 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.

What Holds It Up?

As skeptical author Joe Nickell explains in his article "Helix to Heaven," there is nothing mysterious, much less miraculous, about the stairway's design. To begin with, though it has indeed stood the test of time and never collapsed in the 125-plus years of its existence, the integrity of the structure has long been in question and public use of the stairs has been forbidden since the 1970s.

Notwithstanding the lack of a central column, the staircase does benefit from central support in the form of an inner stringer (one of the two upwardly-spiraling beams to which the steps are attached) whose curvature radius is so tight that it functions as "an almost solid pole," in the words of a wood technologist quoted by Nickell. In addition, the outer stringer is attached to a neighboring pillar via an iron bracket, providing extra structural support. This fact seems to have gone unnoticed by those who choose to emphasize the "mysteries" of the staircase.

In lieu of nails, Rochas fitted the staircase together with dowels or wooden pegs, a not uncommon technique still used by some woodworkers today. Far from weakening a structure, the use of wooden pegs can actually strengthen critical joints because, unlike iron nails or screws, the pegs expand and contract under varying weather conditions at the same rate as the surrounding wood.

Call it a marvel, call it an inspired feat of engineering, call it an aesthetic triumph -- the spiral staircase of Loretto Chapel is a work of beauty and deserves its status as an international tourist attraction. The word "miracle," however, is misapplied.

Sources and Further Reading

  • History, Legend, Literature Come Together in Santa Fe, Baltimore Sun / Augusta Chronicle, November 9, 1996