Saturday, January 24, 2015

Santa Fé, New Mexico’s “Miraculous Staircase” by Kaye Spencer

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?

Miraculous Staircase

Orb, perhaps?
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, Mo.
  • 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)
  • Few students 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
  • 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
  • Chapel is completed
  • No access 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
Choir loft at the back of Loretto Chapel

Choir loft at the back of Loretto Chapel

  • Staircase is built – without a railing

Picture of a picture of the staircase without rails
  • Staircase railing is added
Close-up of staircase railing
1880s & 1890s
  • Chapel undergoes additions, renovations, such as the introduction of the Stations of the Cross, Gothic altar, frescoes
Front/Altar of Loretto Chapel
Pre-Vatican II Confessional & staircase - Loretto Chapel

Now, back to the mysteries of the staircase…

According to the history/legend 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 without payment or thanks.

Is the Miraculous Staircase a miracle, fabrication, or outright 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*; the story is a little slow, contrived, and melodramatic at times; but it’s still worth spending the 95 minutes to watch it, even if you only watch it once.

Other resources:

Note: I took the pictures I used in this blog post. Please feel free to copy/download/use the images as you like.

Until next time,


Fall in love…faster, harder, deeper with Kaye Spencer romances
Twitter - @kayespencer


  1. That staircase is a true miracle. I've seen it. It can't be done. Yet there it is. Built with nothing but hand tools. Incredible! Impossible. Wonderful.

    Good article, Kaye.

    1. Frank,

      I'm in awe of the "built with nothing but hand tools" aspect, also. That is miraculous in itself.

  2. What a great mystery, Kay. I visited years ago. The staircase is breathtaking but so is the story behind it.

    1. Tom,

      It is a great mystery. It's also the *stuff* of legends. It saddens me that nay-sayers are so eager to dismiss the stories of its mysterious construction. Regardless of who actually built the staircase, that it was built and still stands is miraculous.

  3. I've visited the chapel and seen the staircase, and it is awesome and beautiful. Thank you for filling in some blanks.Doris

    1. Doris,

      Thank you for stopping by. I've visited the Loretto Chapel three times, and I hope to return this summer. Another church I like to visit in Santa Fe is the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. I am in awe of the architecture of these old churches. Amazing.

  4. The staircase is awesome having been there. Also interesting is the biography of Father Lamy.

  5. Oscar,

    Yes, Father Lamy was certainly a man with a vision. The first I'd ever heard of the staircase was 15 years or so ago when my youngest son was best man in a wedding at Loretto Chapel. He came home with stories to tell. He was in awe.

  6. How interesting! Had no idea this was there or I'd have taken the time to see it. Now we'll have to return for that reason. :-D

    1. Meg,

      If you visit Santa Fe in July or August, even if you're not an opera-goer, consider at least driving out to the opera house to see it. It's a fascinating structure. To experience an opera performance in a open-air environment is also worth the time and money. (well for me it has been.) *wink*

  7. I have heard of this story and seen pictures, but have never gotten to see it in person. That's something I would love to see. Great post, Kaye, and the pictures and timeline are wonderful. Thank you!

    1. Cheryl,

      It is quite fascinating and beautiful. The Santa Fe area is so rich with history, I could spend months there just poking around to experience it all.

  8. Fascinating, Kaye. I love mysteries like that. Totally ingenious.

    1. Keith,

      It is an ingenious mystery. The Loretto Chapel is one of those special places that, if you are fortunate to visit at an off-tourist time and have the time to just sit and "be" and listen to the silence, it's a place that has all sorts of stories to *tell*.

  9. Great photos! I visited this church many years ago and marveled at the craftsmanship! Thanks for sharing.