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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

“Miraculous Staircase” by Kaye Spencer

Loretto Chapel front view

At the end of the Old Santa Fe Trail stands the Loretto Chapel. Inside the Gothic structure is the staircase referred to as miraculous, inexplicable, marvelous and is sometimes called St. Joseph’s Staircase. The stairway confounds architects, engineers and master craftsmen. It makes over two complete 360-degree turns, stands 20’ tall and has no center support. It rests solely on its base and against the choir loft. The risers of the 33 steps are all of the same height. Made of an apparently extinct wood species, it was constructed with only square wooden pegs without glue or nails…**

Within the well-preserved and quiet walls of Loretto Chapel in Santa Fé, New Mexico, is a staircase steeped in two mysteries that, for many people, have yet to be solved:

1. Who built the staircase?
2. How is its construction possible?

The Miraculous Staircase, as it is called, was built during a six-month period sometime between 1877 and 1881. To understand the story of the staircase, we must understand a little about the chapel’s history; the vision of its founding; the courage and determination of the people dedicated to its success; and the unwavering faith of these pioneering spirits.

Loretto Chapel’s story begins in 1853 and ends in 1971 when it became a private museum for the primary reason of preserving the Miraculous Staircase and the chapel.

Here is the truncated version of the chapel’s history from the chapel’s website**:

*Bishop Jean Baptisite Lamy appointed to Church in Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory.
*Bishop Lamy begins letter writing plea for priests, brothers and nuns to come out and help him.

*Sisters of Loretto send seven sisters from Kentucky.
*Sisters leave St. Louis and travel to Independence, Missouri.
*Encounter cholera epidemic, Mother Superior dies, and one nun is too ill to continue and returns.

1853 - 1873
*Sisters open Academy of Our Lady of Light (Loretto).
*From small school numbers to 300 students (girls) in a short period of time.
*Tuition, donations, and from the sisters own inheritances ($30,000) fund the school and chapel.
*Property is purchased, work on Loretto Chapel begins.
*School facilities cover a square block with 10 buildings.
*Architects from Paris design Loretto Chapel in the gothic style of King Louis IX's Sainte-Chapelle.
Loretto Chapel choir loft

*Stained glass is purchased in Paris, arrives by ship in New Orleans, goes by paddle boat to St. Louis, and then travels by covered wagon via Old Santa Fe Trail.
Loretto Chapel altar

*Chapel is completed.
*No access to the choir loft twenty-two feet above the main floor except by ladder.
*Due to limited space within the chapel, there isn’t room for a staircase.

Loretto Chapel staircase and confessional
*Staircase is built – without a railing.
Loretto Chapel staircase before railing
(picture of a picture)
*Staircase railing is added.

Loretto Chapel staircase
I think I captured an orb.

Loretto Chapel staircase from below
Loretto Chapel staircase close-up

1880s & 1890s
*Chapel undergoes additions, renovations, such as the introduction of the Stations of the Cross, Gothic altar, frescos.
Loretto Chapel back view - Stations of the Cross on right

Now, back to the mysteries of the story of the staircase…

According to the history on the Loretto Chapel website, the Miraculous Staircase is believed to have been constructed by St. Joseph, patron saint of carpenters, who answered the sisters' prayers for a solution to the access problem to the choir loft, when he arrived at the chapel with a donkey and a toolbox, and said he was looking for work. When he finished the staircase, he disappeared, vanished, without payment or thanks.

Is the Miraculous Staircase a miracle or a hoax? To quote a line from 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance'… When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

The 1998, made-for-television movie, 'The Staircase', stars Barbara Hershey as the mother superior and William Peterson as the mysterious carpenter. Yes, there's the Hollywood spin that fiddles with the facts, and the story is a little slow, but it’s still worth watching, even if you only watch it once.

Until next time,

Kaye Spencer

Writing the West one romance upon a time

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All of the images are from my collection.


  1. I've seen the chapel and staircase and you do walk away with wonder in you eyes and mind.

    Great photos and post.


    1. Doris,

      I've been there twice. Each time, I chose a different place to sit and just 'be'. I'd like to visit the chapel sometime when there aren't so many people to 'feel' the stories the chapel has to tell.

      Thanks for commenting.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this information. I missed seeing this when I was in Santa Fe last fall, and now I'm sorry I did. I will have to make another trip back that way and see it for myself. Excellent photos.

  3. Robyn,

    It is definitely worth the visit. Just a couple of blocks away from the Loretto Chapel is the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. It has quite an interesting history, too.

  4. I have been there too. It's magnificent! But the engineer in me knows building it is possible and not divine intervention. :-)

    1. Kristy,

      It certainly is an engineering masterpiece that has, sadly, gained hoax-level status. Here are two (of many) links explaining the construction of the staircase:


  5. Dang, Kaye, that was an interesting piece about the staircase. I can't imagine it not falling apart without a central support. I also liked the mystery of the carpenter who built it--just showed up, built it, and left without even getting paid. I can tell you right now, I would be too scared to climb that thing. It looks scary. Would you climb it?
    Great blog.

  6. Sarah,

    Yes, I'd climb it in a heartbeat. ;-) Regardless of the truth of how it was built and the enduring mystery of the legend of the carpenter, I'm intrigued by the staircase and its story.

    Thanks for stopping by.