As part of the Epic Father-Daughter Road Trip, my Dad an I made several carefully selected detours.
The first stop was Santa Fe, for the sole, select purpose of seeing the Miraculous Staircase.
This staircase is something I first read about in Willa Cather’s gorgeous novelization of the first Bishop and eventual Archbishop of Santa Fe, Death Comes for the Archbishop.
For all the fictionalization in Cather’s book, (albeit sensitive, beautiful and poignant fictionalization,) her history was pretty exact.
The Bishop requested that missionary Nuns come build a convent and a girl’s school in Santa Fe; in 1852 the Sisters of Loretto responded, and by the 1870s their school had grown to house, feed, and educate 300 girls.
In 1873 the Sisters commissioned their own chapel, modeled after the famous Sainte Chappell in Paris. When it was finished in 1878 it was the first Gothic architecture built west of the Mississippi River, but it had a problem.
The builder had neglected to an account for staircase into the choir loft twenty-two feet above.
The chapel was too small to build a traditional staircase without decreasing the amount pew space by a third.
And a ladder was not a feasible option for Nuns. (With the whole seeing up skirts modesty issue.)
No carpenter, not even those brought from France, could find a solution.
Finally the Sisters began a novena, (a nine-day long prayer,) to St. Joseph. St. Joseph, in addition to being the foster-father of Jesus, is the patron saint of carpenters.
On the last day of the novena, a man appeared leading a donkey burdened with only a saw, a T-square, and tubs in which to soak the wood. He told the sister that he could solve their staircase problem.
For three months he locked himself in the chapel, and then, with the staircase having been finished, mysteriously disappeared without seeking payment.
The stair he built was in a spiral with two complete 360 turns.
He had not used any nails.
But most amazingly, the staircase has no support. The full weight of it rests upon the last step into the choir loft.
Given the helix shape and lack of connection to anything other than the slim piece of wood attached to the choir loft, the whole staircae ought to spring like a slinky. But it does not.
The stair was originally built without a banister, which was, as a sign said, “a daily act of faith” for the sisters and students. Ten years after construction the sisters hired a local carpenter to add the handrail.
Later years also added the support of that metal coil attached to the pillar. Otherwise the stairs are untouched.
Seen it up close, it looks as though the spiral should be built around a pole; there is space for a pole at the center. But there is no pole.
The wood bent around the interior of the spiral is thought to be the main support, because of the tight radius. But no modern replica can be made.
It is a feat of both engineering and carpentry, particularly given the simple tools that the mysterious carpenter used.
As they will attempt to prove otherwise, we must look at the historical usage of the stair.
Hmm. What say you all now, oh scientists of skepticism?
The staircase and chapel are very beautiful, even if sadly no longer in the possession of the Church. In the wake of Vatican II the chapel was sold to a private family, and is now simply a tourist attraction.
It was painful to watch the tourists meander in and snap photos without seeming to notice anything anomalous about the staircase.
Even if one is suspicious of the origin or “miraculousness” of the staircase, the marvel of its design and construction ought to elicit some awe.
So if you are ever near Santa Fe, it is certainly worth a detour!