This month’s Legends and Lore post takes us to New Mexico, the state where my Legends of Madeira series is set.
The city of Santa Fe was founded sometime between 1607 and 1610, making it the second oldest city in the United States. It’s an area rich in history dating back as far as 10000 BC when the Clovis, Folsom, and Ancestral Puebloan cultures inhabited the land.
Modern-day Santa Fe is considered one of the world’s great art cities and is home to several art museums including the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. In 2005, Santa Fe became the first United States city to be chosen by UNESCO as a creative city, one of only nine such cities in the world.
Santa Fe is also the home of several historical buildings including The Palace of the Governors, St. Francis Cathedral, Santa Fe San Miguel Chapel, and the Loretto Chapel.
The Loretto Chapel is a former Roman Catholic church that is now used as a museum and a wedding venue. It was commissioned by the Sisters of Loretto for a girl’s school, Loretto Academy, in 1873. French architect Projectus Mouly designed the building in a Gothic Revival style, complete with spires, buttresses, and stained glass windows which were imported from France.
The Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Photo by Camerafiend, CC BY-SA 3.0
But the chapel is best known for its helix-shaped spiral staircase. It’s the subject of legend. The Sisters of Loretto considered the circumstances surrounding its construction and its builder miraculous.
After completion of the chapel, there was no access to the choir loft twenty-two feet above. Numerous carpenters were consulted, but all concluded access to the loft would have to be via ladder because a staircase would interfere with the small interior space of the chapel.
Legend has it that the sisters made a novena to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters. On the ninth and final day of prayer, a man appeared at the chapel riding a donkey and carrying a toolbox looking for work. The sisters hired him to design the staircase.
The work took several months, and after the staircase was completed, the carpenter disappeared without receiving pay. After searching for the man and finding no trace of him, some believed he was St. Joseph himself, having come in answer to the sisters’ prayers.
The design of the staircase could be considered a miracle itself. It ascends twenty-two feet, makes two 360-degree turns, and has no visible means of support. It was built without the use of nails, only wooden pegs. Another fascinating aspect is the staircase contains thirty-three steps, a significant number in the Christian faith as Jesus was thirty-three years of age at the time of his death. Railings were added in 1887 by another craftsman, Phillip August Hesch.
The staircase inside the Chapel of Loretto. Attribution: Ben Frantz Dale (assumed based on copyright claims), CC BY-SA 3.0
In 2004, amateur historian Mary Jean Cook identified the probable builder as Francois-Jean Rochas, a reclusive rancher and occasional carpenter who came to the Santa Fe area from France sometime in the 1870s.
Rochas was murdered in 1895. An article in the Santa Fe New Mexican at the time of his death stated, “He was a Frenchman, and was favorably known in Santa Fe as an expert worker in wood. He build [sic] the handsome staircase in the Loretto chapel and at St. Vincent sanitarium.”
Cook also found an entry in the Sisters’ logbook that states Rochas was paid $150.00 in 1881 (the equivalent of $4023.00 in 2020). The entry stated he had done some type of carpentry work for them. At the time of his death, Rochas reportedly owned an extensive set of carpentry tools.
Whether the builder was Rochas or St. Joseph himself, the design of the staircase is remarkable. In a Washington Post column, Tim Carter wrote, “It’s a magnificent work of art that humbles me as a master carpenter. To create a staircase like this using modern tools would be a feat. It’s mind-boggling to think about constructing such a marvel with crude hand tools, no electricity, and minimal resources.”
For his book Mysterious New Mexico, author Ben Radford interviewed another professional carpenter who stated, “The execution is just incredible. The theory of how to do it, to bend it around in a two-turn spiral, that’s some difficult arithmetic there.”
Miracle or not, the staircase is a marvelous work of talent and ingenuity. It rightly deserves its place in New Mexico history and its legends.