A bit of history
After the United States’ victory in the Mexican-American War, a vast piece of land in the Southwest was ceded in 1848 to America. The Spanish town, La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asis (“The Royal Town of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi”), founded in 1610, became the capital of the state of New Mexico, with the new name of Santa Fe. It was then occupied by Indians, Mexicans and Spaniards.
Simultaneously, a young French-American priest stationed in Cincinnati, Ohio, Fr. Jean-Baptiste Lamy was appointed the bishop for this new acquired territory. When he arrived, many priests, resenting him as an interloper, decided to return to Mexico leaving the new diocese with a few priests and educators. In response, Bishop Lamy wrote pleas requesting priests, brothers and sisters for his diocese: “I have 6000 Catholics and 300 Americans” he explained! The first to accept his plea were the Sisters of Loretto.
This young congregation, founded in 1812 by Fr. Charles Nerinckx under the name of “the Little Society of the Friends of Mary under the Cross of Jesus,” was the first order of sisters created in the United States. When they named their little log cabin “Little Loretto” in honor of the Holy Family, they became known as the “Loretto Sisters”.
In 1852, 7 courageous sisters left the safe, secure and civilized state of Kentucky and began the arduous journey to Santa Fe.
Their trek was through St. Louis, then westward along the Missouri River to Independence, Missouri. The small group was beset by a cholera epidemic; the superior, Mother Matilda died, while another sister was too ill and had to return to Kentucky. The remaining 5 continued their travel by wagon through bad weather and hostile Indians, a journey of several months that included struggles and fears, broken axles and wheels, sights of sun-bleached bones and scorching days.
The sisters did not speak Spanish when they arrived; nevertheless, supported by Bishop Lamy, they started the school the following year in 1853, “for the education of young ladies”. Through tuitions, donations, inheritances, and dowries from their families, they built the convent, chapel and school (titled the Loretto Academy of Our Lady of Light).
Bishop Lamy brought the architect Antoine Mouly from Paris to build his cathedral. As an architect, he had been involved in the renovation of the Ste. Chapelle in Paris, France in the early 1800s. When asked by the Loretto Sisters to design their chapel, he fashioned it in a beautiful Gothic style after the Ste. Chapelle.
Skilled craftsmen and artisans from France and Italy were brought to assist the qualified local builders for the bishop’s cathedral. They also helped with the sister’s chapel. The entire design and craftsmanship were executed majestically but not at a large expense the sisters could not afford.
The chapel was built with a choir loft but installing stairs was a problem. During the fourth year of the chapel’s construction the sisters faced a dilemma. The school was growing with more students each year. A typical staircase would use too much floor space thereby limiting seating in the chapel. On another hand, using a ladder to ascend the loft would be terrifying and unfitting for the sisters and the girls. Mother Magdalen called in many carpenters to try to build a stairway; but each, in his turn, measured, thought, and then shook his head sadly saying, “It can’t be done, Mother” (“No se puede, Madrecita”).
These sisters though were ladies of great faith! They decided to entrust the difficulty to the one they had placed the construction of their chapel under: St. Joseph. So, sisters and students together began a 9-day novena to St. Joseph, asking for his intervention. It was not surprising therefore when on the 9th and final day of the novena, there appeared at the school an old, gray-haired and bearded man with a donkey and a tool chest; a carpenter who offered to build the needed staircase. He was hired and proceeded to go to work.
Answer to a prayer
One would not pay an itinerant craftsman until after the job was completed. Mother Magdalen wrote she didn’t even ask the name of the mysterious carpenter. During these times it was considered immodest for the sisters and the girls to carry on a conversation with a male laborer. They just remembered that the only tools he had were a hammer, a saw and a T square. And he worked during more than 6 months. When the work was completed, Mother Magdalen went to pay him, but he had vanished. She went to the local lumber yard to pay at least for the wood, but they knew nothing of the matter there!
Wonder of construction
The winding stairway that St. Joseph left for the sisters and their students is a masterpiece of beauty and wonder. It makes two complete 360 degrees turns. There is no supporting pole up the center as most circular stairways have. This means that it hangs without support, and the transferred weight is solely on the base. Until now, no consensus among engineers having reached to give a scientific explanation.
The short pieces of wood 3 to 5 feet in length were put together only with hundreds of square wooden pegs used with great precision and exceptional craftsmanship. There are no nails, screws nor glue. The assembled structured is comprised of approximately 93 pieces of wood divided amongst 10 for the outside stringer, 8 for the inside stringer, as well as 33 steps and 33 risers.
The perfection of the stringers’ curves is baffling; the wood is spliced along the sides of the stringers and each piece is perfectly curved.
Another mystery of this staircase was the type of wood used. Though the treads have been constantly walked on and were used daily by the sisters and children for over 100 years, nonetheless, only the edges show signs of wear. The wood also appears not to be native to the state of New Mexico, and is in fact, an unknown variety.
When first built, the staircase had no banisters, a feature that would not be added until 7 years later.
St. Joseph, pray for us!
Holy Mother Church is always cautious about making statements concerning things of a supernatural nature. Though nothing definite has been said about the stairway, everyone is convinced that this was St. Joseph’s answer to prayers. Devotees of Christ’s Foster Father do not require the Church’s official judgment to understand that the humble, silent, generous and exceptional craftsman was St. Joseph himself.
May he help us to ascend, through the imitation of the life of Jesus to the choir loft of Our Lady to sing eternally with the angels and the saints the eternal Sanctus to the Trinity!
1 One account tells the work was done very quickly.
2 Three major theories have sought to provide an explanation for the strength of the staircase:
- the double helix and the weight placed upon it could make it stronger;
- the inside stringer, being of small diameter could be a load-bearing column;
- the well-fitted square wooden pegs could create a virtual solid entity.
3 In 1996, after a 15-month study and wood analysis by Forrest N. Easley, a wood technologist for 40 years, it was concluded that the wood of the staircase is of an unknown origin. It is a spruce species but of a subspecies like no other. As stated by Mr. Easley, “No other spruce has square shaped structured cells”. It is now named: Pinacae Picea Josefii Easley, or as a common name, Loretto Spruce.
4 Among the girls who attended the academy at the time the stairway was constructed was a girl of about 13 years. She later became a Loretto Sister, Sister Mary, and she never tired of telling how she and her friend were among the first to climb up the stairway. They were so frightened when they got up to the choir that they came down by crawling down backward or by “bumping down on their bottoms”.