The Loretto Chapel: Home to America's most mysterious staircase

December 17, 2012 2 min read

Staircases are rarely the source of controversy. However, one staircase in particular has been the source of praise and bewilderment from members of the architectural community and the religious world who are not only perplexed by its design but also by the means of its construction.

The Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico is home to the staircase in question. It was designed by French-born architect Antoine Mouly for the Sisters of St. Loretto in 1872. The architect had died abruptly before the construction of the chapel was complete, leaving one final piece of the design unfinished: There was no staircase to transport nuns up to the choir loft.

Architects and engineers of the time simply could not design a staircase to fit the narrow space, unanimously insisting that a ladder was the only possible means of transport. The nuns, who wore long habits in the 1800s, were concerned about the prospect of climbing a 20-foot-tall ladder multiple times a day, so they sought a solution.

Legend has it that the sisters prayed for nine straight days to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters, for help. The day after the sisters had completed their novena, an anonymous man came to the church asking for a construction job. He promised the mother superior that if he was allowed to work alone he would have a staircase built for the sisters in three months.

The stranger delivered, and abruptly disappeared before the sisters could identify him. What he left was a spiral staircase that ascends 20 feet up to the choir loft without any single structural support. As well, the structure appears to have been crafted using only wooden dowels instead of metal nails. Most baffling of all, no witnesses ever saw wood delivered to the chapel, despite it being crafted of a non-native variety.

Even modern architects have trouble understanding how such a staircase could be crafted by one man given modern technology let alone a few meager tools and wooden dowels.

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