Two mysteries surround the spiral staircase in the Loretto Chapel: the identity of its builder and the physics of its construction

 



In 1872 Jean-Baptiste Lamy, the Bishop of the Santa Fe Archdiocese, commissioned the building of a convent chapel to be named Our Lady of Light Chapel, which would be in the care of the Sisters of Loretto. The chapel was designed by French architect Antoine Mouly in the Gothic Revival style, complete with spires, buttresses, and stained glass windows imported from France. Although it was built on a much smaller scale, the chapel bears an obvious resemblance to the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.

 
The architect died suddenly[citation needed] and it was only after much of the chapel was constructed that the builders realized it was lacking any type of stairway to the choir loft. Due to the chapel's small size, a standard staircase would have been too large. Historians have also noted that earlier churches of the period had ladders rather than stairs to the choir loft, but the Sisters did not feel comfortable with that prospect because of the long habits that they wore.
The Sisters of Loretto relate the story as follows:

Needing a way to get up to the choir loft the nuns prayed for St. Joseph's intercession for nine straight days. On the day after their novena ended a shabby-looking stranger appeared at their door. He told the nuns he would build them a staircase but that he needed total privacy and locked himself in the chapel for three months. He used a small number of primitive tools including a square, a saw and some warm water and constructed a spiral staircase entirely of non-native wood. The identity of the carpenter is not known for as soon as the staircase was finally finished he was gone. Many witnesses, upon seeing the staircase, feel it was constructed by St. Joseph himself, as a miraculous occurrence. 

The resulting staircase is an impressive work of carpentry. It ascends twenty feet, making two complete revolutions up to the choir loft without the use of nails or apparent center support. It has been surmised that the central spiral of the staircase is narrow enough to serve as a central beam. Nonetheless there was no attachment unto any wall or pole in the original stairway, although in 1887 -- 10 years after it was built -- a railing was added and the outer spiral was fastened to an adjacent pillar.[3] Instead of metal nails, the staircase was constructed using dowels or wooden pegs.
Master carpenter Christopher Francis Ocean explains that, "A simple staircase has two beams, called stringers, and the treads of the staircase rest on these beams or are connected to them...the weight of the staircase [is] transferred to where the two stringers touch the floor. The only difference with the staircase at the Loretto Chapel is these beams or stringers have been twisted into a helix."[4] However, Carter does view the staircase as a magnificent work of art, and a feat to create using modern tools, let alone with crude hand tools and no electricity.[4] {www.wikipedia.com}
Sisters, going in to the Chapel to pray, saw the tubs with wood soaking in them, but the Man always withdrew while they said their prayers, returning to his work when the Chapel was free. Some there are who say the circular stair which stands there today was built very quickly. Others say no, it took quite a little time. But the stair did grow, rising solidly in a double helix without support of any kind and without nail or screw. The floor space used was minimal and the stair adds to, rather than detracts from, the beauty of the Chapel.

The Sisters were overjoyed and planned a fine dinner to honor the Carpenter. Only he could not be found. No one seemed to know him, where he lived, nothing. Lumberyards were checked, but they had no bill for the Sisters of Loretto. They had not sold him the wood. Knowledgeable men went in and inspected the stair and none knew what kind of wood had been used, certainly nothing indigenous to this area. Advertisements for the Carpenter were run in the New Mexican and brought no response.

"Surely," said the devout, "it was St. Joseph himself who built the stair" {www.snopes.com}

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