Warm burnished wooden steps glow in the light filtered through the windows. The spiral staircase elegantly twists and turns in perfect synchronicity, forming a helix like a strand of DNA. Gazing at it, I try to imagine how the staircase appeared without its railing, as originally constructed by a mysterious carpenter.
In 1852 the Bishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico, ordered the building of a chapel for the use of the Sisters of Loretto, an order of nuns from Kentucky. The nuns ran a school for girls that the chapel was to serve. Unfortunately, the architect neglected to include a way to reach the second floor choir loft. Engineers and builders were consulted. No one could find a way to build a staircase or even a usable ladder in the narrow area available.
For nine days the nuns prayed asking Saint Joseph, Jesus’ foster father and a skilled carpenter, to provide a solution. On the ninth day, a man with a donkey and tools showed up. He offered to build the staircase, provided he did so in complete privacy.
The nuns agreed.
When he finished, the carpenter left without being paid. The spiral staircase rose from the floor to the loft without any visible support. It was made of a wood not native to the area and contained no nails or glue.
To this day, no one can explain how it is constructed or why it does not collapse. It originally had no supports other than the spiral shape and the floor. Ten years later a railing to help the nuns climb the staircase was added. In the twentieth century, attachments to a pillar and the walls were added to address vibrations caused by trucks and cars on the crowded streets surrounding the chapel.
Many attribute the staircase to Saint Joseph himself, as did the grateful nuns. While others have offered alternative theories of the identity of the builder, no one has been able to explain or replicate the staircase itself.
This miracle inspired movies and books. Visiting New Mexico to see Saint Joseph’s staircase was high on my list when I began my Tin Can Pilgrim adventure. You won’t be disappointed if you add it to your itinerary.
The chapel is no longer consecrated. The nuns sold the property in 1968 to finance retirement care for the elderly sisters. It is now a wedding chapel and museum. Tourists from all over the world pay a modest charge to enter the chapel through a small museum and bookstore. They are fascinated by the staircase, taking selfies and videos. While some pilgrims pray, most talk among themselves wondering how the staircase is possible
What is the appeal of the staircase in our secular world? What does it say to us today?
Not everything has a logical explanation. Faith often takes as true that which is unseen. Here, you can see for yourself something that defies known physics, suspended in space, joining the earth with the heavens so to speak. Perhaps the staircase invites you to seek more than you know, to turn in unexpected directions.
As for me, like the nuns, I believe the staircase is an answer to prayer for Saint Joseph’s intercession. The spiral beauty is a sign of contradiction, reminding us how God cares for us in the smallest of details. Through the silent carpenter, God made it possible many years ago for the grateful nuns to praise Him from their choir loft. Today, the staircase draws the curious to seek beyond its mystery to eternal mysteries.
The Loretto Chapel, 207 Old Santa Fe Trail, Santa Fe NM 87501, is in downtown Santa Fe within walking distance of many shops, restaurants and other attractions. Visit the website to learn more.