Western Trips

Western Trips

Friday, October 26, 2012

Loretto Chapel

The Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe New Mexico is a fascinating story and begins with the Sisters of Loretto. If you have an opportunity to visit Santa Fe, the Loretto Chapel, located just one block southeast of the Plaza is a must visit. By Spanish decree, the settlement of Santa Fe was designed around a central plaza. All roads radiated out from the plaza, most being very narrow and could be called alleyways. It is on the old Santa Fe Trail leading away from the plaza where the Loretta Chapel is located.

loretto chapel in santa fe new mexico
Loretto Chapel
The Sisters of Loretto Build a School

The Sisters of Loretto established the Academy of Our Lady of Light in 1853. This would have been about seven years after the United States annexed New Mexico Territory and only three years after the arrival of Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy. Today's small settlement of Lamy New Mexico, about twenty miles southeast of Santa Fe is named in his honor.

Bishop Lamy encouraged the sisters to open up a female day and boarding school school in Santa Fe. This boarding school grew and grew over the next few decades. With the success of the school going well, the sisters believed that the next thing needed was a chapel. Funds were raised and in construction began in 1873 and the chapel was completed by 1878.

The Circular Staircase

loretto chapel staircase
Loretto Chapel staircase
One of the mysteries surrounding the Loretto Chapel has to do with it's circular staircase. It seems that when the chapel was completed in 1878, there was no way to reach the choir loft which was over twenty feet above the chapel floor. Carpenters who were consulted that there was not sufficient room inside the chapel for a conventional staircase and that a ladder would be required. The story continues that to find a solution to the choir loft problem, the Sisters of the Chapel made a novena to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters.

On the very last day of the sisters prayers a carpenter with a toolbox and a donkey showed up at the Loretto Chapel. The man said he was looking for work and the sisters hired him for the job. What resulted from the work of this unnamed carpenter, which some say took months, although other versions contend that it was built fairly quickly, was a spiral staircase with two 360 degree turns. The Loretto Chapel staircase rises solidly in a double helix without support of any kind and without nail, screw or any type of metal. When the job was completed the carpenter left without asking for pay or even a thank you.

The Carpenter Vanishes

There was a big effort to locate this man. Nobody in Santa Fe knew who he was. There were no bills whatsoever for the sisters or the Loretto Chapel at the local lumberyard. To this end, an ad was placed in the newspaper but without results. The sisters came to believe that the carpenter who mysteriously showed up at the chapel and then vanished was St. Joseph himself. In any event, many people believed that the work of the spiral staircase was inspired by St. Joseph himself as the result of the sisters prayers.

loretto chapel interior
Loretto Chapel Altar
The carpenters work became known as the "miraculous staircase". When you view the Loretto Chapel staircase the first thing you realize is that it has no visible means of support. The carpenter constructed the staircase using only wooden pegs. Architects who have seen the staircase marvel at how it has survived these many years  and stays in place. Many have thought that the staircase should have collapsed on it's own years ago.

Two additional Western Trips photo articles you'll find interesting are Galisteo Church and the Spanish Mission, San Francisco de Asis in Rancho Taos.

Also, see the Santa Fe Plaza Cam located in the heart of Santa Fe New Mexico.

Thousands of Visitors Annually

Thousands upon thousands of people from all over the world have visited Loretto Chapel to see the "miraculous staircase". As mentioned above, this is a must stop when visiting Santa Fe. People who view the staircase cannot quite understand how it was built. Television specials as well as movies have been produced about the chapel and it's unique staircase.

There are questions regarding the number of risers used in the construction relative to the height of the choir loft. Also, questions about the type of wood used in the construction. Knowledgeable people were brought in to identify the wood used. It was concluded that the wood was not from the area. To this day the wood has not been specifically identified. Some think that this is not uncommon but to the people who do believe in this miracle in Santa Fe, the fact that the origin of the wood hasn't been found is indeed significant. What is universally agreed upon is that the construction itself was very innovative for the era.

choir loft at loretto chapel
Choir loft at Loretto Chapel
The Loretto Chapel staircase was completed without a railing. The sisters were concerned about this and in fact were afraid themselves to go up and down. About ten years after the staircase was originally built, a local artisan was brought in to add a railing.

Possible Explanations Put Forth in Books

Books have been published that claim to have solved the many questions of the "miraculous staircase". Some have identified the carpenter as a Frenchman who was well known. As to the wood used...some have contended that it was imported from France. If indeed you accept the premise that the Sisters of Loretto did make a serious effort to find out the carpenters name and went as far as placing an ad in the Santa Fe "New Mexican" newspaper, then you would have thought the carpenter could have been easily identified. The detractors of the legend claim that the carpenter was a well known figure. The legend from the sisters contends otherwise. It's an interesting story and it's something each one of us will have to determine ourselves after visiting Loretto Chapel along with reading up on more of the chapel's history.

Visit Loretto Chapel

The staircase has been closed to public use since the 1970's although it's recognized as still usable.This former Catholic church which is now privately owned  is used as a museum as well as a venue for weddings. The church is adjacent to the Inn of Loretto, one of Santa Fe's many popular close in hotels. The La Fonda Hotel is one-half block north of the chapel.  The address of the Loretto Chapel is 207 Old Santa Fe Trail.

(Photos from author's private collection)

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