There are many beautiful, historic churches in Santa Fe, but our favorite was the amazing Loretto Chapel on Old Santa Fe Trail.
Though not nearly as old as the Mission of San Miguel (which happens to be the oldest church in the U.S.) or as imposing as the Saint Francis Cathedral downtown, the Loretto Chapel and its “miraculous” staircase is really something to behold. And the history behind it, wow…
Responding to a plea from Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy to start a school, the Sisters of Loretto sent seven nuns to Santa Fe in 1852. The trip west was brutal and almost immediately, the sisters were beset with a cholera epidemic. Their Mother Superior succumbed to the illness and another sister became too ill to continue the trip and turned back.
The remaining sisters arrived sometime in the fall of 1852 and in 1853 opened the Academy of Our Lady of Light not far from the site of the present day Loretto Chapel. Over time, their school grew and using the tuitions from their students, donations and even money from their own family inheritances, the sisters funded construction of the Loretto Chapel.
Modeled after King Louis IX’s Sainte Chapelle in Paris, the Gothic-revival chapel took ten years to build and was finished — complete with stained glass windows imported from France! — sometime in 1878. The only problem was reaching the choir loft in the back of the chapel.
In similar chapels elsewhere, the choir loft was easily accessed by male clergy and a ladder. But the sisters were hoping for something a little less dangerous, so, they consulted a carpenter. He too told them that a ladder was the best way to go as a traditional staircase wouldn’t fit in the tiny chapel.
Now, here is where the story gets really interesting. Legend has it that the frustrated sisters made a novena (which, for you non-Catholics is sort of a specialized prayer) to Saint Joseph, the Patron Saint of Carpenters. They prayed hard for nine days, and on the ninth and final day of the novena, a man appeared at their door looking for work.
Armed with only a donkey and a toolbox, the man set about building the sisters an elaborate circular staircase with no visible signs of support. Even more impressive is the fact that he built the stairs without nails, using only wooden pegs to hold everything in place.
It took the carpenter six months to fashion the winding staircase and immediately after he’d finished, the man — who never requested or received any payment for his labor — vanished, never to be seen or heard from again. The sisters tried to find him for years, but no trace of the man was ever found. And soon, many locals began to suspect that the mysterious carpenter might be Saint Joseph himself, come to answer the sisters prayers.
Adding credence to that claim is the still-unidentified wood used in several portions of the stairs, not to mention the innovative way the carpenter molded the wood using only the tools he brought with him on his donkey. Now, I don’t know is that dude was really Saint Joseph or not, but trust me, that staircase has some kind of mystical aura.
I was feeling some seriously serene vibes in that place and Ginger was so moved by the whole experience that she actually started crying. Of course, it doesn’t take much to turn on those waterworks (just kidding, Ginger!) but, whoa…even though you can’t walk on them or touch them, there was something really amazing going on with those crazy stairs.
I don’t know why I hadn’t heard of this place before, but apparently the Loretto staircase is so famous that it’s been featured on “Unsolved Mysteries” and was even the subject of a TV movie, “The Staircase”, starring Barbara Hershey, Diane Ladd and CSI’s William Peterson. Who knew?
Anyway, if you get a chance to visit only one church in Santa Fe, I say check this joint out. If the miraculous story behind the stairs doesn’t move you, the super cool 3-D prayer cards in the gift shop surely will!