The Loretto Chapel Staircase

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 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.

The Legend

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 Staircase

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

The Builder

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.

A Miracle?

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.

Unknown Soldiers #MysteryMonday

Hey, everyone. It’s been a while since I’ve written a Mystery Monday post. This time, it’s more history than mystery, except for the names of the three men interred in a tomb in Arlington National Cemetery.

I wrote this post for Veteran’s Day back in 2019 but decided to take off for NaNoWriMo. Since Memorial Day—a time in which we honor the men and women who gave their lives in service of our country—is later this month, I thought this was a more appropriate time to share it.

Changing of the Guard Ceremony

I had the privilege of visiting The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier a few years ago and was able to see the changing of the guard ceremony. It was a touching and somber occasion. Here’s a bit of the history behind the tomb.

On Memorial Day 1921, the bodies of four unknown soldiers who served in World War I were exhumed from American Cemeteries in France.

Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, a highly decorated veteran of the Great War, selected the first unknown soldier from four identical caskets. The chosen one was transported to the United States on the USS Olympia. The remaining three were interred in Meuse Argonne Cemetery in France.

The Unknown was interred in the tomb on November 11, 1921, with President Warren G. Harding officiating at the ceremony.

In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill to honor unknowns from World War II and the Korean Conflict.

Two unknowns from World War II—one from the Pacific Conflict, the other from the European Theater were exhumed. Four unknowns from the Korean War were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii.

Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle made the final selection. Both caskets lay in state at the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 – May 30, 1958.

President Eisenhower awarded both the Medal of Honor. They were then laid to rest beside their World War I comrade.

The Unknown service member from the Vietnam War was designated by Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg Jr. during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, May 17, 1984.

An Army caisson carried the Vietnam Unknown from the Capitol to the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day, May 28, 1984. President Reagan presided over the funeral and presented the Medal of Honor to the Vietnam Unknown.

On May 14, 1998, the Vietnam Unknown’s remains were exhumed. Mitochondrial DNA testing confirmed the body was that of Air Force First Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie, who was shot down in 1972. Blassie’s remains were returned to his family in St. Louis, Missouri, and he was reinterred at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.

A marker over the crypt where his body once rested now reads, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen.”

With advancements in DNA testing, there likely will never be another unknown soldier. However, the three entombed in Arlington serve as a reminder of the sacrifice made by many.

Babushka Lady #MysteryMonday

Hey, everyone. I wrote this post a year ago, but held it when I decided to take a blogging break for NaNoWriMo. I found it in my archives, so this month, you get two Mystery Monday posts.

Yesterday marked the fifty-seventh anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. On November 22, 1963, as the presidential motorcade drove through Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas, shots rang out from the Texas School Book Depository.

The former Texas School Book Depository, now home of the Sixth Floor Museum.

JFK, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, Texas Governor John Connally, and his wife Nellie were riding in the presidential limousine. An assassin mortally wounded JFK. He was later pronounced dead at Dallas’s Parkland Memorial Hospital. Governor Connally was seriously wounded, but recovered.

Elm Street, Dallas. The presidential motorcade took this route on 11/22/63.

Seventy minutes later, police arrested former marine Lee Harvey Oswald and charged him with the murder of Dallas policeman, J. D. Tippit. He was eventually charged with Kennedy’s assassination.

Conspiracy theories surfaced almost immediately. Many claimed other shots came from an area known as the grassy knoll.

Dallas businessman Abraham Zapruder had a perfect vantage spot to watch the presidential motorcade. By chance, he brought his 8mm Bell and Howell movie camera. His film became an essential piece of evidence in the investigation.

A view of Elm and Main Streets from the Grassy Knoll. Zapruder shot his film from this location.

Among the many persons present at Dealey Plaza was a mysterious woman known as the Babushka Lady. The nickname came about because of the headscarf she wore, which was similar to those worn by older Russian women.

Eyewitnesses claimed this woman held a camera as she stood on the grass between Elm and Main streets. She is visible in the Zapruder film and in some taken by other witnesses. In one film made by a man named Mark Bell, she is holding a camera to her face. This was after the shooting, and most of the surrounding witness had taken cover.

Afterward, she crossed Elm Street and blended in with the crowd on the grassy knoll. In the last photographic account of her, she is walking east on Elm Street. Neither she nor the film she may have taken, have ever been identified.

In 1970, a woman named Beverly Oliver claimed to be the Babushka Lady. She stated she used a Super 8 film Yashica camera, and she turned the undeveloped film over to two men who told her they were FBI agents. According to Oliver, she didn’t get a receipt and claimed they promised to return the film to her within ten days. She did not follow up with an inquiry.

However, Oliver never proved she was in Dealey Plaza on the day of the assassination. Yashica didn’t make the Super-8 camera until 1969. When confronted with that fact, Oliver stated she received the “experimental” camera from a friend and was not even sure the manufacturer’s name was on it.

It’s doubtful Beverly Oliver was the Babushka Lady since she was only seventeen years old in 1963. The woman wearing the headscarf appeared to be older. Oliver was also thinner and taller than the woman in the photos.

It’s highly unlikely the Babushka woman is still alive these days. Whoever she was, the secret died with her, leaving more room for speculation and conspiracy theories.

Archibald Gracie #MysteryMonday

Hey, everyone. I think we’re long overdue for a Mystery Monday post. You may remember my post, Strange Coincidences, where I recount events in the life of Robert Lincoln, son of our sixteenth president. I’ll let you decide if you think today’s story is another strange coincidence.

The RMS Titanic as it sailed from Southhampton, England on April 10, 1912. (Public Domain)

I’ve always been fascinated with the Titanic. The luxury ocean liner sank in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912. I vividly recall when Dr. Robert Ballard and his crew located the wreckage in 1985. Over the years, I eagerly sought information about the ship, the passengers, and survivors.

A few years ago, I happened across a book titled Titanic Voices: 63 Survivors Tell Their Extraordinary Stories by Hannah Holman. Ms. Holman used excerpts from newspaper articles, testimonies before the British Board of Inquiry, and other sources. In some cases, survivors wrote books about their experiences.

There are several fascinating stories, but the account of first-class passenger Archibald Gracie intrigued me the most.

Archibald Gracie (Public Domain)

Gracie was an amateur historian who had published a book about the American Civil War. He was returning to the US after visiting Europe to rest and recuperate from a recent illness. His book, The Truth About the Titanic, gives his account of events leading up to that fateful night and his surviving the incident.

I think Mr. Gracie is best suited to tell his story, so I will post excerpts from his book. In this first part, he writes about his events on the morning of April 14, 1912.

One of the characters of the ship, best known to us all, was the gymnasium instructor, T. W. McCawley. He, also, expected me to make my first appearance for real good exercise on the morrow, but alas, he, too, was swallowed up by the sea. How well we survivors all remember this sturdy little man in white flannels and with his broad English accent!

With what tireless enthusiasm he showed us the many mechanical devices under his charge and urged us to take advantage of the opportunity of using them, going through the motions of bicycle racing, rowing, boxing, camel and horseback riding, etc.  Such was my morning’s preparation for the unforeseen physical exertions I was compelled to put forth for dear life at midnight, a few hours later. Could any better training for the terrible ordeal have been planned?

The exercise and the swim gave me an appetite for a hearty breakfast. Then followed the church service in the dining saloon, and I remember how much I was impressed with the ‘Prayer for those at Sea.’

The bow of the sunken Titanic, photographed in June 2004. (Public Domain)

Mr. Gracie was among the last passengers to escape the sinking ship when Lifeboat B floated off the port side at 2:15 a.m. Before this time, he helped other survivors into various lifeboats. What follows is his account of the sinking:

My holding on to the iron railing just when I did, prevented my being knocked unconscious. I pulled myself over on the roof on my stomach, but before I could get to my feet I was in a whirlpool of water, swirling round and round, as I still tried to cling to the railing as the ship plunged to the depths below. Down, down, I went: it seemed a great distance. There was a very noticeable pressure upon my ears, though there must have been plenty of air that the ship carried down with it.

When underwater I retained, as it appears, a sense of general direction, and, as soon as I could do so, swam away from the starboard side of the ship, as I knew my life depended upon it. I swam with all my strength, and I seemed endowed with an extra supply for the occasion.

My being drawn down by suction to a greater depth was undoubtedly checked to some degree by the life-preserver which I wore, but it is to the buoyancy of the water, caused by the volume of air rising from the sinking ship, that I attributed the assistance which enabled me to strike out and swim faster and further underwater than I ever did before. I held my breath for what seemed an interminable time until I could scarcely stand it any longer, but I congratulated myself then and there that not one drop of sea-water was allowed to enter my mouth.

With renewed determination and set jaws, I swam on. Just at the moment I thought that for lack of breath I would have to give in, I seemed to have been provided with a second wind, and it was just then that the thought that this was my last moment came upon me. I wanted to convey the news of how I died to my loved ones at home.

As I swam beneath the surface of the ocean, I prayed that my spirit could go to them and say, ‘Goodbye, until we meet again in heaven.’ In this connection, the thought was in my mind of a well-authenticated experience of mental telepathy that occurred to a member of my wife’s family. Here in my case was a similar experience of a shipwrecked loved one, and I thought if I prayed hard enough that this, my last wish to communicate with my wife and daughter, might be granted.

I can’t imagine what was going through this man’s mind, believing he would die. But, let’s read on.

To what extent my prayer was answered let Mrs. Gracie describe in her own written words, as follows:

‘I was in my room at my sister’s house, where I was visiting, in New York. After retiring, being unable to rest I questioned myself several times over, wondering what it was that prevented the customary long and peaceful slumber, lately enjoyed. “What is the matter?” I uttered. A voice in reply seemed to say, “On your knees and pray.” Instantly, I literally obeyed with my prayer book in my hand, which by chance opened at the prayer “For those at Sea.”

Coincidence? Or other strong forces at work?

The gravestone of Archibald Gracie (Creative Commons Photo)

Mr. Gracie, like the other surviving passengers, was picked up by the Carpathia. Sadly, he didn’t fully recover from his ordeal and died on December 4, 1912. His book, published posthumously in 1913, is one of the most important sources of information from the survivors.

Flight 19: #MysteryMonday

Hey, readers. This week we’re returning to the sea for another mysterious disappearance. This one has always fascinated me.

The Bermuda Triangle is an area in the Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda, Southern Florida, and Puerto Rico. It’s also referred to as Devil’s Triangle or Hurricane Alley and is the spot where several ships and aircraft have disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

One of the most famous disappearances is that of Flight 19.

Similar TBF Avengers – the same planes as Flight 19. (Public Domain)

On December 5, 1945, five TBM Avenger torpedo bombers took off from a Naval Air Station in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for a routine training flight. Collectively known as Flight 19, the flight plan called for them to head east from the Florida coast, conduct bombing runs at a place called Hen and Chicken Shoals, then turn north to Grand Bahama Island before changing course southwest and back to the base.

All crew members were experienced aviators, most of whom had logged more than 300 hours of flight time. The leader, Lt. Charles C. Taylor, was an experienced pilot who flew several combat missions in World War II.

The first part of Flight 19’s mission proceeded smoothly and without incident. But shortly after the patrol turned north for the second leg of the journey, something happened. For some unknown reason, Lt. Taylor became convinced his Avenger’s compass was malfunctioning and thought his planes were flying in the wrong direction.

Troubles mounted when a front brought heavy cloud cover, rain, and gusting winds. The crews became disoriented, and one pilot was noted to have said, “I don’t know where we are. We must have got lost after that last turn.”

A Navy flight instructor, Lt. Robert Cox, was flying near the Florida coast and overheard Flight 19’s radio communications. He informed a nearby Air Force Station and contacted the crew to ask if they needed assistance.

Taylor responded. “Both my compasses are out, and I’m trying to find Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. I’m over land, but it’s broken. I’m sure I’m in the Keys, but I don’t know how far down.”

His communication didn’t make sense. Less than an hour earlier, he was in the Bahamas but now believed his place had drifted hundreds of miles off course into the Florida Keys. Some speculate he may have confused some of the Bahaman Islands for the Keys.

Under normal circumstances, pilots lost in the Atlantic were supposed to point their planes toward the setting sun and fly west toward the mainland, but Taylor had become convinced that he might be over the Gulf of Mexico.

In hopes of locating the Florida peninsula, he decided to fly northeast in a course that would take them even farther out to sea.

Apparently, some of his pilots realized the mistake. One was heard to say, “Dammit. If we would just fly west, we would get home.”

Eventually, someone persuaded Taylor to turn west, but shortly after 6:00 p.m., he canceled the order and changed direction. “We didn’t go far enough east. We may as well just turn around and go east again.”

Several speculate Taylor’s pilots argued the decision, and some investigators think one plane broke away and flew in a different direction.

Flight 19’s radio transmission became increasingly faint. In one of the last communications heard, Taylor prepped his men for a potential crash landing in the ocean. “All planes close up tight. We’ll have to ditch unless landfall…when the first plane drops below ten gallons, we all go down together.”

Minutes later, the only thing heard was an eerie buzz of static.

The Navy sent up search planes. Around 7:30 p.m., two PBM Mariner flying boats took off from an air station north of Ft. Lauderdale. Twenty minutes later, one of them vanished off radar. The wreckage and bodies of the thirteen crewmen were never found.

The common belief is the seaplane exploded after takeoff. These planes were accident-prone and even nicknamed “flying gas tanks.” A passing merchant ship confirmed seeing a fireball and found evidence of an oil slick in the ocean.

The next day, the Navy sent more than 300 boats and aircraft to look for Flight 19 and the missing Mariner. But five days of combing through 300,000 square miles yielded no findings.

“They just vanished,” Navy Lt. David White later said. “We had hundreds of planes out looking, and we searched over land and water for days, and nobody ever found the bodies or any debris.” The Navy board of investigation had no definitive answer, finally attributing the loss to “causes or reasons unknown.”

As you might expect, the fate of Flight 19 has caused much speculation. Some believe the flight was gobbled up by the Bermuda Triangle. Other theories include magnetic anomalies, parallel dimensions, alien abduction.

The most likely cause is the planes ran out of fuel and ditched somewhere in the Atlantic. In 1991, a group of treasure hunters thought they had solved the puzzle when they found five World War II-era Avengers submerged in waters near Fort Lauderdale. However, the serial number of these planes didn’t match those of Flight 19.

The search continues to this day, but no signs of Flight 19, the Mariner and twenty-seven crewmen have ever been found.