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Another staircase surrounded by legend and myth is the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA. It is a former Roman Catholic Church used as a museum today and as a wedding chapel. It’s known for its unusual helical staircase called the Miraculous Stairs. The Sisters of Loretto credit St. Joseph with its construction.
The Bishop of Santa Fe Archdiocese, commissioned the building of the convent chapel to be named, Our Lady of Light Chapel. It will be under the care of the Sisters of Loretto. It was designed by French architect Antoine Moully in the Gothic Revival style, complete with buttresses, stained glass windows from France and spires. The architect died suddenly and it was only after the chapel was constructed that the builders realised it was lacking a staircase to access the choir loft. Because of the chapel’s small size, a standard staircase would have been too large. According to historians, early churches of that period had ladders instead of stairs but the Sisters did not feel comfortable with that prospect because of the long habits they wore.
Legend has it that to find a solution to access the choir loft of the chapel, the Sisters made a novena to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters for nine consecutive days. On the ninth and final day of the novena, a shabby looking man appeared at the Chapel with a donkey and a toolbox looking for work. He told the nuns he would build them a staircase but he needed total privacy so he locked himself in the church for three months. With only a small number of primitive tools including a square, saw, warm water and a non-native wood, he constructed a spiral staircase. The carpenter disappeared after he constructed the elegant staircase without pay or thanks. An ad even ran in the local newspaper in search of the man who made the staircase but no trace about the information and whereabouts was found. Many witnesses and pilgrims, upon seeing the staircase, feel it was constructed by St. Joseph himself.
The resulting staircase was innovative for the time and some aspects of the design still perplex experts today. The staircase ascends twenty feet, making two complete revolutions up to the choir left without the use of nails or centre support. There was no attachment unto any wall or pole in the original stairway, though in 1887, 10 years after its completion, a railing was added and the outer spiral was fastened to an adjacent pillar. Instead of nails, it was constructed using dowels or wooden pegs alone.
It was claimed that the mystery had never been satisfactorily solved as to who the carpenter was or where he got his lumber since there were no reports of anyone seeing lumber delivered or even seeing the man come and go during the construction.
Over the years, pilgrims and churchgoers flocked to the Loretto Chapel to see the Miraculous Staircase. It has been the subject of many articles, TV specials and was investigated and re-enacted in the Unsolved Mysteries. The story was the subject of the 1998 television film, The Staircase starring Barbara Hershey and William Petersen.