The Helix Staircase of the Loretto Chapel and Other Miracles
Santa Fe is the oldest capital city in New Mexico, US. But it is not just the age of the city that makes it a popular destination. In the center of the city stands an architectural landmark, a former Roman Catholic Church, which is known as the Loretto chapel. The church was built in the 1870s and it has a French gothic style, but unlike other chapels where you admire the paintings, statues, stained glass, and masonry skills, this chapel is famous for its helix spiral staircase, otherwise called the “Miraculous Stairs.”
Legend of the Loretto Chapel Staircase Miracle
According to legend, which has since been made into a movie called “The Staircase” (1998), the nuns of the Loretto Chapel that were there when it was being built realized at some point that they had to find a way to build a staircase to connect the choir loft to the ground floor. They didn’t want the staircase to be big because it would take up too much space, so they went to get advice from the local carpenters -but no one could provide a feasible solution.
Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA. (eickys /Adobe Stock)
According to the historical account, a short time later a man arrived and offered to do the job but he asked to be alone in the chapel for three months, and with only simple tools including a saw, T-square, and a hammer, he built the ‘miraculous’ staircase. It is a spiral staircase making two complete 360 degrees rotations but without using a central pole and without using any nails, only wooden pegs.
The bannister of the staircase is perfectly curved, a remarkable accomplishment considering the basic tools that were used. The shape of the helix is not a stable weight-supporting structure, and without the middle column it shouldn’t be able to withstand the weight of people using the staircase.
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When the man finished the staircase, he left without asking for a cent. The nuns tried to find him but they could not. They did not know who he was and where he got the wood from. 10 years later the railing was added to the staircase by Phillip August Heasch – for safety reasons.
Later on, the manager of the privately owned chapel (1991-2006), Richard Lindsley, took a piece of wood from the staircase and sent it for analysis to find out what kind of wood it was. When the results came back, they showed that it was spruce, but of an unknown subspecies. This specific wood was very strong with dense and square molecules - which is something that you usually find in trees that grow very slowly in very cold places like Alaska.
However, there was no such wood in the area and no local trees grow in the Alpine tundra in the surrounding area. The closest place that he would find this density in trees was in Alaska, but of course back then transport was not the same as it is now and wood was not transported over such long distances.
Were the Stairs Created by a Man from a French Secret Society?
Santa Fe New Mexican offers an alternative explanation for the amazing staircase. It’s said that when historian Mary J. Straw Cook researched the stairs for a book she was writing, she “found information in an 1881 nun’s daybook that a man named Rochas was paid for wood.” Francois-Jean Rochas, an alleged “member of a French secret society of highly skilled craftsmen and artisans called the Compagnons, which had existed since the Middle Ages” has been named as the skilled woodworker who apparently “came to the U.S. with the purpose of building the staircase with wood shipped from France.”
When a group of stair-building professionals convened at the Loretto Chapel a few years ago to see the staircase they were shocked at the beauty, design, and engineering of the stairs. A couple of their comments on the workmanship after analyzing the stairs are: “We all like to think we create creative stair designs and nice curved staircases, but to think how they did it that long ago and still attain the same quality is breathtaking” and
“One hundred and fifty years ago it took a very well-trained, seasoned, experienced master craftsman. We have been building them for centuries like this. The fact that somebody showed up out of the desert might be a miracle, but he knew exactly what he was doing.”
Miraculous staircase, Loretto chapel. Santa Fe, NM. (Alain Secretan (ASITRAC) /CC BY NC SA 2.0)
Miracles through History
The nuns of the Loretto Chapel have attributed the staircase to a miracle, a divine event that seems to transcend natural law, and they believed that the man who came to create the staircase was a man sent from heaven. While the account of the mysterious helix staircase of Loretto is a relatively modern-day legend associated with a miracle, reports of miracles go back thousands of years and can be found in virtually every religion and culture around the world.
During the first century BC, a variety of religious movements and splinter groups developed amongst the Jews in Judea. A number of individuals claimed to be miracle workers in the tradition of Elijah and Elisha, the ancient Jewish prophets. The Talmud provides some examples of such Jewish miracle workers, one of whom is Honi HaM'agel, who was famous for his ability to successfully pray for rain.
Elisha sees Elijah taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire. (Public Domain)
In Buddhism too, there are texts that speak of miracles. The biographies of High Monks record that King Beopheung of Silla had desired to promulgate Buddhism as the state religion. However, officials in his court opposed him.
In the 14th year of his reign, Beopheung's "Grand Secretary", Ichadon, devised a strategy to overcome court opposition. Ichadon set up a scenario which would result in his capture and eventual execution. He prophesied to the king that at his execution a wonderful miracle would convince the opposing court faction of Buddhism's power.
Ichadon's scheme went as planned. According to the story, when Ichadon was executed on September 15th, 527 AD, his prophecy was fulfilled; the earth shook, the sun was darkened, beautiful flowers rained from the sky, his severed head flew to the sacred Geumgang mountains, and milk instead of blood sprayed 100 feet (30.48 meters) in the air from his beheaded corpse.
The Monk Ichadon. (Public Domain)
The omen was accepted by the opposing court officials as a manifestation of heaven's approval, and Buddhism was made the state religion in 527 AD.
Later, in the 1600s, the saint and mystic St. Joseph of Cupertino entered into a religious trance and reportedly began hovering over the crowds. He apparently experienced this levitation multiple times — one time in front of Pope Urban VIII. As a result of his flying exploits, this mystic is the patron saint of pilots.
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Though not strictly a miracle, the Shroud of Turin is one of the most famous relics in history. The textile is allegedly the burial shroud of Jesus and contains an imprint of his face. Subsequent research has revealed that at least parts of the relic date to medieval times, suggesting it was an elaborate hoax. However, follow-up research found the shroud could be much older — dating to between 280 BC to 220 AD.
Belief in miracles has existed from as long as history has been recorded up until the present day. However, as scientific progress has marched forward, many apparent miracles have wound up having scientific explanations. Others have shown to be elaborate hoaxes. Nevertheless, despite scientific progress, there are still many miraculous phenomena that have not yet been explained.
Top Image: The ‘miraculous’ helix staircase in Loretto Chapel, New Mexico. Source: Craig /Adobe Stock
By John Black