Yesterday's Light

Images in Space and Time

The Miraculous Staircase

Miraculous Staircase (240, EM1)

Perhaps the most interesting story we encountered while visiting Old Santa Fe is the tale of the Miraculous Staircase in the Loretto Chapel.  Now a museum, the chapel draws thousands of people each year who want to see this amazing piece of architecture.  And it is amazing.  And mysterious, at least according to the legend.

When the chapel was completed in 1878, there was no way to get to the choir loft.  Personally, I find this “minor” oversight a bit puzzling.  How could you possibly build the chapel, with a choir loft, and then discover that the nuns had no way to get up there (except with a ladder).  Carpenters told church leaders that a normal staircase would take up far too much room (it isn’t a very big church).

So the nuns did what nuns do – they prayed.  For 9 days they prayed.  And on the ninth day a mysterious carpenter arrived who just happened to be looking for work.  How about building a staircase, they asked him.  Sure, he said.  When he was finished he left, without giving his name or accepting any payment or even a thank you.  He simply disappeared.  And that’s mystery #1.  Who was he?

Mystery #2, of course, is the staircase itself.  It has two 360 degree turns, no real support structures, and it originally had no nails in it – just wooden pegs.  The hand rails were added later, after the nuns complained about the potential danger of falling off.  According to the stories we heard, architects still marvel (and wonder) how he did it.  Thus the name “The Miraculous Staircase”.  Some claim that the builder was St. Joseph himself (the patron saint of carpenters, I’m told).

Whoever he was, it’s a remarkable story.  I was also told that a movie was once made (“The Staircase”) about the chapel and the mysterious carpenter.  I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I’ll have to check.  Might be fun to watch………

Added note:

Son of a gun, there is a movie.  Made in 1998 for television, it stars William Peterson and Barbara Hershey.  I just watched a few clips.  Looks good.


6 Responses to “The Miraculous Staircase”

  1. John

    Fascinating story and beautiful church interior. That staircase IS a miracle. I like the windows as they appear almost pastel, which is unusual. Good job on balancing out the exposures.

    • Paul Maxim

      Thanks, John. I’ve been pretty happy with the exposure latitude on the EM-1. I set it to “Auto ISO” and let it go as high as 1600. I can then easily pull down the highlights and lighten the shadows. Then a little bit of noise suppression and it’s all good. I’ve been impressed. The noise level seems to be considerably less than I got with my old Canon.

    • Paul Maxim

      Yes, it’s a hard story to completely swallow. But it all happened not so long ago – it shouldn’t have reached “legend” status yet, I wouldn’t think. Supposedly it’s completely safe, although they won’t let you go up it.

  2. Earl Moore

    The staircase is certainly a thing of beauty which would be hard to duplicate even in this day and age. Of course, in an institute of miracles the story about a mysterious carpenter and the miracle of the staircase is a wonderful public relations tale.

    • Paul Maxim

      You’re right, Earl. It does seem like a good “public relations” tale. But no one that I talked to there seemed to know of a better (or truer) explanation. Of course I only talked to a few people working at the chapel, but if there is a “real” story they weren’t going to share it with me! Still, an amazing piece of work when you get to see it up close.


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