In September 1852 the Sisters of Loreto came, by paddle steamer and by covered wagon, to the Southwest. Their trip which had begun in Kentucky the previous May on a riverboat steamer which took them up the Mississippi to St. Louis, was at the specific request of Bishop Jean Lamy, who had been appointed Vicar-Apostolic of the New Mexico Territory in 1850. From St. Louis to Independence, Missouri, the Sisters took the steamer “Kansas,” but on the way a sorrowful adversity befell the little community. Their beloved Superior, Mother Matilda, came down with cholera and died shortly after arriving in Independence. Two other Sisters also had the disease, but they slowly recovered.
After more months of struggles and fears, broken axles and wheels, and scorching days, what was left of the missionary team finally arrived in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Sisters Magdalen, Catherine, Hilaria, and Roberta made up the community. At the direction of Bishop Lamy, Sister Magdalen was appointed Superior of the Sisters. She was a woman of strong faith and firm resolution, and the situation she and her Sisters faced was a difficult one.
It was only because these Sisters of Loreto were great-hearted women, thoroughly permeated with an all-consuming love of God, that they were able to brave the hardships of those first years. Bishop Lamy was in the midst of a valiant struggle to preserve the Catholic Faith in “New” Mexico. The formerly Spanish Catholic territory was still groaning under its hostile “takeover” from Mexico in 1848, and the Sisters were not particularly welcome, as far as territorial officials were concerned. Thus, they certainly had no comfortable Convent waiting for them upon their arrival. They lived at first in a little, one-room adobe house. At that time the population of the little city of Santa Fe was still made up mostly of Catholic Mexicans and Indians. Today Santa Fe is a large modern city, the State Capitol, though, with its quaintly narrow streets and Spanish architecture, it still keeps alive the ancient climate of the old “Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Assisi” (The Royal City of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi), which is its proper name, founded by Spanish Catholic conquistadors and missionaries in 1610.
But back in 1852 it soon became quite evident that, if the Sisters were to fulfill the intentions of Bishop Lamy, who had brought them to Santa Fe for the specific purpose of helping him to preserve the Catholic Faith of the people, they would need a Convent and a school to teach their children. Mexican carpenters zealously began to build for the Sisters. The school was swiftly completed and was called “Loreto Academy of Our Lady of Light.” Plans were made next for a beautiful Chapel. According to the Sisters’ annals for the year 1873, the Chapel was begun on July 25th of that year. It was designed by the same architect, Mr. Mouly, who had designed the Bishop's Cathedral in Santa Fe. Because Bishop Lamy was from France, he wished the Sisters to have a Chapel that was similar to his beloved Sainte Chapelle in Paris. That meant that it was to be strictly European Gothic, in fact, the first Gothic structure west of the Mississippi. It was to be, in many ways, a visible symbol of the courageous Bishop's opposition to “Americanism,” which would be condemned by Pope Leo XIII in 1899.
French and Italian masons immediately went to work on the new structure. It would be large—larger in fact—than most of the mission Chapels in that area. It was to be 25 feet by 75 feet with a height of 85 feet.
Mother Magdalen recorded in the annals that the erection of the Chapel was placed under the patronage of St. Joseph “in whose honor we communicated every Wednesday, that he might assist us.” Then she adds, “Of his powerful help we have been witnesses on several occasions.”
The Chapel work progressed with some financial worries and a maximum of faith on the part of the Sisters. It was not until it was nearly finished that they realized that a dreadful mistake had been made. The Chapel itself was beautifully done, and the choir loft was wonderful too, but there was no connecting link between the two. There was no stairway and, because the loft was exceptionally high, there was no room for a stairway as ordinary stairways go. Mother Magdalen called in many carpenters to try to build a stairway; but each, in his turn, measured and thought and then shook his head sadly saying, “It can't be done, Mother.” It looked as if there were only two alternatives: to use a ladder to get to the choir which seemed impractical in any case, or to tear the whole thing down and rebuild it differently. The latter would have been a heartbreaking task. However, anyone who knows true Catholic Sisters and their trust in Divine Providence, knows they will not plunge into such a drastic solution to a problem without first saying something like, “Let's wait awhile and make a novena.” So the Sisters of Loreto made a novena to St. Joseph for a suitable solution to the problem.
On the very last day of the novena, a gray-haired man came up to the Convent with a burro and a tool chest. Approaching Mother Magdalen, he asked if he might try to help the Sisters by building a stairway! Mother gave her consent gladly, and he set to work. According to the story that was later told by some of the Sisters present at the time and passed on to others, the only tools he had were a hammer, a saw and a T-square, and some of the Sisters remembered seeing a few tubs of water for soaking the wood to make it pliable. It is not clear how long he took to complete the work, for when Mother Magdalen went to pay him, he had vanished. She went to the local lumber yard to pay for the wood, at least. They knew nothing of it there. To this day there is no record stating that the job was ever paid for.
The winding stairway that the kindly man had left for the Sisters is a masterpiece of beauty and wonder. It makes two complete 360 degree turns. There is no supporting pole up the center as most circular stairways have. This means that it hangs there with no support! The entire weight is on the base. Some architects have said that by all laws of gravity, it should have crashed to the floor the minute anyone stepped on it, and yet it was used daily for over 80 years.
The stairway was put together only with wooden pegs – there is not a single nail in it. At the time it was built, the stairway had no banisters. These were added later. Among the girls who attended the Academy at the time the stairway was constructed was a girl of about thirteen years. She later became a Loreto Sister, and she never tired of telling how she and her friend were among the first to climb up the stairway. She said that they were so frightened when they got up to the choir that they came down on their hands and knees!
Visitors have come from all over the world to see the wonderful stairway. Among them have been architects who, without exception, declare that they cannot understand how the stairway was constructed nor how it remains as sturdy as it is after a century of use. Mr. Urban Weidner, a Santa Fe architect and wood expert, says that he has never seen a circular wooden stairway with 360 degree turns that did not have a supporting pole down the center. One of the most baffling things about the stairway, however, is the perfection of the curves of the stringers. According to Mr. Weidner, the wood is spliced along the sides of the stringers with nine splices on the outside and seven on the inside, each fitted with the greatest precision. Each piece is perfectly curved. How this was done in the 1870's by a single man in an out-of-the-way place with only the most primitive tools is inexplicable to modern architects.
Many experts have tried to identify the wood and surmise where it came from. No one has ever been able to give a satisfactory answer to this mystery. The treads were constantly walked on for over 80 years since the stairway was built, but they showed signs of wear only on the edges. Mr. Weidner identifies this wood as “edge-grained fir of some sort.” (Others say it is long-leaf yellow pine.) He knows definitely that this hard-wearing wood did not come from New Mexico. Where the mysterious carpenter got this wood is a secret known to him alone.
Holy Mother Church is always cautious about making statements concerning things of a supernatural nature. Therefore, the good Loreto Sisters whose prayers were so wonderfully answered, as well as Bishop Lamy, in this spirit, refrained from saying anything definitive about the stairway. But Mother Magdalen and her community of Sisters and students knew that the stairway was St. Joseph’s answer to their fervent prayers. Many were convinced that the humble carpenter was St. Joseph himself, as his silent, prayerful labors were precisely the virtues one would expect of the foster-Father of Our Divine Lord.
The Convent annals tell us that the Chapel of Our Lady of Light was dedicated by the Bishop on April 25, 1878, and remained as a beautiful testimony of the wondrous power and intercession of good St. Joseph for over 80 years. To this very day, those who love and revere good St. Joseph, can still go and gaze upon that which is, without doubt, a visible testimony that St. Joseph indisputably finds ways to provide for those who humbly and confidently place their needs in his capable hands.
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