Loretto Chapel

207 Old Santa Fe Trail Santa Fe

VAMONDE Santa Fe
Written By VAMONDE Santa Fe

The Loretto Chapel

The Loretto Chapel former Roman Catholic church that is now used as a museum and a wedding chapel. It's known for its unusual helix-shaped spiral staircase, known as the "Miraculous Stair". The Sisters of Loretto credit St. Joseph with the chapel's construction, and the circumstances of its construction have long been considered miraculous by the Sisters of Loretto.

History

In 1873 the Sisters of Loretto commissioned the chapel for their girls' school, the Loretto Academy. Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy selected two French architects to work on the project: Antoine Mouly and his son Projectus. It was Projectus who ended up being the main architect, and his design was based on the the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. It was built by locally quarried sandstone and was officially consecrated in 1878.

Loretto Chapel was used on a daily basis by the students and nuns of Loretto Academy until the school closed in 1968. Afterwards, it became a privately owned museum and wedding venue, while the rest of the Academy campus was demolished.

The "Miraculous Staircase"

The most popular feature of the Chapel is the "miraculous" spiral staircase. It was built sometime between 1877 and 1881 and was a challenge because the architect unexpectedly passed away before building access to the choir loft. Many builders could not find a solution due to the confined quarters and so the nuns prayed for nine straight days to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters. On the last day, a mysterious stranger showed up and offered to build the staircase. He worked alone and left before the Sisters learned his identity. The Sisters believed that St. Joseph himself built the staircase and it soon became one of Santa Fe's most famous tourist attractions after the story spread.

It rises twenty feet to the choir loft and makes two full turns without the support of a central pole. It's made out of wood that's glued together rather than nails. Whether or not you consider it miraculous, it is described as a remarkable feat of woodworking. The stairs have been mostly closed to the public since the chapel became a privately run museum in the 1960s.

The Identity of the Mysterious Builder

Early in the 2000s, amateur historian Mary Jean Cook identified a probable builder of the staircase: Francois-Jean "Frank" or "Frenchy" Rochas )1843-1894). Francois-Jean came to New Mexico from France sometime in the 1870s and made a living as a rancher and occasional carpenter. It turns out the Sisters' logbook contains evidence that they paid Rochas $150 for "wood" in 1881.

Loretto Academy

Loretto Academy was founded in 1853 and continued to operate until 1968. Afterward, the previously all-male St. Michael's High School turned co-ed in order to accommodate the Academy's female students.

Born in Santa Fe in 1917 (1917–2005), Mary Frances Hill (née Julian) attended the Loretto Academy from 1920 until 1935 and she is believed to have attended the Academy longer than any other student and she is also believed to have climbed the miraculous staircase more times than anyone else as a result of having been a member of the Academy's choir.

Cover image: "Loretto Chapel" by psyberartist is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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