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.

The Ghosts of the Hotel Galvez

Today we’ll travel back to my home state of Texas and the City of Galveston for this month’s Legends and Lore post.

Located on Galveston and Pelican Islands, the City of Galveston was once the largest in Texas. The 1900 Galveston hurricane changed that. Still known as the deadliest natural disaster in United States history and the fifth-deadliest Atlanta hurricane, the storm claimed between 6,000 and 12,000 fatalities. Official counts cite around 8,000 dead. After the storm, investors grew alarmed and turned inland to Houston which is now the largest city in the state.

Today Galveston is a coastal resort city with an economy consisting of tourism, shipping, financial, and medical industries. It’s the home of the University of Texas Medical Branch which has an average annual enrollment of 2500 students.

Galveston as seen from the International Space Station
(Public Domain Photo)

Galveston is rich in history. As you might expect along with that history comes tales of haunted places, one of which is the Grand Galvez Resort and Spa.

The historic hotel has 226 rooms and opened to the public in 1911 as the Hotel Galvez. Once referred to as the “Playground of the Southwest,” celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jimmy Stewart, and Duke Ellington were frequent visitors. American Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Lyndon Johnson also stayed in the hotel, as did General Douglas MacArthur.

But the Hotel Galvez is also known for some permanent tenants. Guests who checked in but have never checked out. The hotel is ripe with paranormal activity. Who are some of its permanent inhabitants?

The Love Lorn Lady

Audra is the most famous ghost that resides in the Galvez. In the mid-fifties, she was a twenty-five-year-old bride-to-be. Her fiancé was a mariner who often sailed in and out of the port of Galveston. She would often rent room 501 which was close to the elevator. Audra used the elevator to access a ladder that led to the roof.

Audra would climb to the red-tiled roof to await her fiancé’s ship, sitting inside the hotel’s rooftop turret. After a devastating storm, Audra received word the ship had capsized and “all hands were lost.” Inconsolable, Audra hung herself in the hotel’s west turret.

Sadly, her fiancé arrived in Galveston a few days later, having survived the storm. Visitors to the hotel claim Audra frequents the fifth floor, although she’s most often seen in her matrimonial room.

Some claim to feel a sudden chill before Audra’s specter appears. Others say there is an inexplicable slamming of doors, televisions turn on and off, and lights flicker back and forth. Front desk staff say they have a difficult time making electronic keys for the room.

Sister Katherine

Sister Katherine is another spirit who haunts the hotel. She belonged to the Sisters of Charity which oversaw the St. Mary’s Orphans Asylum. During the 1900 hurricane, the asylum was ravaged by the storm.

Trying to save as many orphans as possible, the sisters made rope out of cloth, tied them to the children and their waists, in hopes of withstanding the storm’s devastating winds. Some believe the ropes were counterproductive, leading to the deaths of ninety children and ten sisters. They were found still attached to one another along the beach where the Galvez is now located.

Their bodies were buried on-site, which lead some to believe the Galvez stands above their mass grave.

Phantom Children

A small girl, dressed in nineteenth-century clothing often frequents the hotel gift shop, lobby, and staircase. She’s often seen bouncing a ball. Other phantom children are said to run throughout the hotel, laughing and often playing the piano. Visitors can hear the sounds of their laughter, but the children remain unseen.

Would You Visit?

I have not stayed in the Galvez, but I wouldn’t be opposed to doing so. What about you? Would you book a room in a haunted place?

Cold Dark Night Featured on Smorgasbord Cafe

Hey, everyone. I don’t often post twice in one day, but wanted to let you know that Cold Dark Night is featured today on Sally Cronin’s Smorgasbord Cafe.

If you aren’t following Sally’s blog, you should. She is a wonderful supporter of writers and is also an author herself.

Click here to visit.