• Lotte Drewitt

Who Built The Loretto Staircase?

Santa Fe, New Mexico is home to a wonder some believe to be a heavenly miracle and others believe to be a technical marvel. The Loretto Staircase has a story nearly as beautiful and inspiring as the staircase itself. Yet its creator remains a mystery.


The Story of the Loretto Staircase

The Loretto Staircase
Photo by Nick Castelli on Unsplash.

For the story of its origins, we can go right to the Loretto Chapel website itself. In 1873, the Sisters of Loretto, who had arrived in New Mexico some 20 years earlier to found a school for girls, began construction of a chapel. Architects were chosen--Antoine Mouly and Projectus, his son--the same architects who had built the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Because Projectus died suddenly in 1879, the chapel remained unfinished, most notably the choir loft lacked stairs. A typical staircase was not suitable, as that would take away seating room. So the sisters sought divine help. They prayed for nine days to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters, for guidance.


And on the ninth day, he answered.


At least, it certainly seemed that way. Because a mysterious carpenter arrived on that last day of prayers "with only a hammer and carpenter’s square," according to the Loretto Chapel website--the carpenter's square being a symbol of St. Joseph. While it is argued how long it took, in the end, there was indeed a staircase--a remarkably beautiful, well-crafted staircase--which seemed to float in the air, without obvious supports. The carpenter left as secretly as he had appeared, without accepting payment.


The sisters searched for him; by contacting lumber yards that he might have purchased materials from, they tried to find him and find out who he was. But no accounts had been made for supplies for the stairs. For the sisters, the trail went cold. But they were extremely happy with the staircase, which proved to be unusually strong. Although, some were still afraid to descend the staircase due to its lack of railings, so railings were added in 1887 by a craftsman named Phillip August Hesch.


How is the Loretto Staircase supported without a central pole?

A photo of the Loretto Staircase by an unknown photographer showing off the strength of the staircase.
A photo of the Loretto Staircase by an unknown photographer showing off the strength of the staircase.

For an answer to this question, we can look to Washington Post writer Tim Carter, who explained this in an article about the Loretto Chapel.

"A simple staircase has two beams, called stringers, and the treads of the staircase rest on these beams or are connected to them... When the carpenter set your steps in place, the weight of the staircase was 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. If you took the staircase apart and just allowed the inner and outer stringers to stand there by themselves, they would do so like the flagpole just outdoors on the plaza, even though each stringer is made up of several pieces of wood glued and pegged together. It's that simple." - Tim Carter, Washington Post

So the staircase, while expertly constructed, is not unique in its shape or strength. Other, similar spiral staircases have been constructed in churches around the world. For example, the Gdańsk Town Hall in Gdańsk, Poland has a staircase which bears close resemblance to the one in the Loretto Chapel.


Who could have built the Loretto Staircase?

Although the sisters were unable to discover the identity of the craftsman at the time, someone has been able to uncover evidence leading to his identity after more than a hundred years. Mary Jean Cook, an amateur historian and author of the book "Loretto: The Sisters and Their Santa Fe Chapel", discovered an article in the Santa Fe New Mexican regarding the death of François-Jean Rochas in 1895. François-Jean went by the names "Frank" or "Frenchy" and was a rancher and handyman. The article claimed that he was "an expert worker in wood" and asserted that he was the builder of the Loretto Staircase. Additionally, Cook discovered an entry in the sisters' logbook that stated Rochas had been paid US$150 in 1881 for "wood".


One last mystery: Where did the wood come from?

The man who managed the Loretto Chapel from 1991 to 2006, Richard Lindsley, wanted to investigate the source of the wood used to build the stairs. To do this, he contacted a man named Forrest N. Easley, and provided him with a sample of wood obtained from a crack at the top of the stairs. Mr. Easley worked at a Naval Air Weapons Station in California at the time and was a scientist capable of testing and researching the wood sample.


What happened next was astonishing. Easley went in person to the chapel to deliver his findings. He informed Lindsley that he had searched through all known data and could not find a match.


"He researched it further and after 18 months...[Easley said] the wood from the staircase had molecules that were "very dense and square" and indicated that it had come from trees that grew slowly in a "very, very cold place," like Alaska (not New Mexico)." - sott.net

There was no way for wood to be brought to New Mexico from Alaska in the 1800's. Some light is shed on this in a report called "The Southeastern Alaska Timber Industry: Historical Overview and Current Status":


"Before the U.S. purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, logging was limited to the needs of Tlingit, Haida, and later, Russian settlements (and some exports)." - Timber Industry Conservation Report

In the end, this seems to be the biggest mystery regarding this religious and historical treasure. We can guess at who built it, and we can use physics to explain how it stands, but we have no real evidence to explain how the wood for the staircase came to be.


Consider it a miracle!


Notes:

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