This article is an ongoing project. In the process of moving the website to a different hosting company links and photos were lost. I’m still searching for a few.
I am well aware of the doctrinal differences between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Some Protestants would insist The Roman Church is entirely iniquitous and her doctrine completely inconsistent with The Holy Bible as they understand and interpret it.
Suddenly we discover a story like this. Now we must ask ourselves if the Catholic Church can be defended after all. I think at least for the parishioners their dedication is sincere, and the answer is, “You may disagree with The Vatican, but the parishioners are entirely defended by their faith and several miraculous events, this one being most notable.” SN
Perhaps the answer begins with the definition of the word, and the meaning it brings to the lives of those who see and touch it. Dr. Steve Newdell delves deeper into the legend of The Miraculous Staircase inside the amazing Loretto Chapel while searching for a miracle residing within you.
Where did they come from, these Nuns, these dedicated ladies called to be the Sisters of Loretto? They claim the miraculous happened here. Let’s you and I search for the miracle.
The History of The Chapel and Santa Fe stems from the year 1610, and can be traced earlier to the first Spanish settlements and missions in the Southern U.S. Coast around what today we call Florida.
That anyone survived the difficult environment in those days might be called “miraculous.”
In 1852, seven Sisters of Loretto left their Kentucky Motherhouse for the southwest’s Land of Enchantment. They carried with them fear and faith, and hearts beating with excitement of an adventure and sorrow leaving those they knew and loved behind, never to be seen again.
They made their way up the Mississippi River to Independence, Missouri by boat. One sister had to leave them due to ill health. She returned to the Kentucky Motherhouse. The six journeyed on pulled by horses aboard a covered wagon.
They reached the endless grasslands of Kansas and made camp as the sun set. It seemed they had just closed their exhausted eyes when about them was a clamor as a band of Indians on horse-back surrounded the small camp riding, circling, shouting and calling, warning the six sisters they were not welcome to stay. Who knows? Perhaps they were on sacred Indian ground, or perhaps the wild band was a premonition. The Indians left as suddenly as they had come leaving the sisters whispering prayers of thanksgiving.
That same evening, one of the sisters died. As much as they wanted to leave they made prayers, broke the sod and dug a shallow grave. This beloved member of the Sisters of Loretto was buried there on the Kansas grasslands in an unmarked grave. “God’s grace upon you.” Now there were five young women and a guide alone on the grasslands as the morning’s heat seared across the distant horizon. Terror in the past, and many miles before we sleep again.
Days passed, weeks passed. How big is this land? How long will we endure this endless painful travel? Months passed and a cold wind cut through their clothes. At last when it seemed the journey could never end the five sisters reached the City of Holy Faith, and settled into a home in the center of town.
Santa Fe, New Mexico, in those years, was a very small village inhabited mostly by Indians and Mexicans. At the invitation of the newly consecrated Archbishop Lamy, (the first bishop of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe), the Sisters of Loretto opened their first academy for girls.
The year was 1853. The ladies had settled into a quiet purposeful routine and continued for twenty years even as The War Between The States 1861 – 1865 raged, for the most part, beyond their hearing.
In 1873, Archbishop Lamy offered support for the building of a chapel. The architecture would be modeled from the “Sainte-Chapelle” in Paris.
Santa Fe was not a wealthy city; mostly inhabited by poor Native Americans and Mexicans who labored all day to scratch a living from the dry soil. By some “miraculous” effort after nearly five years “Our Lady of Light” chapel was completed. But there was a problem!
The architect, P. Mouly, neglected to place a staircase in his design. He had planned to connect the loft with the second story of the convent-school, using an outdoor hallway. This was never accomplished. Mr. Mouly had come to his untimely demise and the detail about the stairway to the choir loft was not fitting to the present reality. Would they climb a ladder for the next many years? Would they be required now to build and tolerate a stairway on the outside leading to the loft?
The small chapel stands 25 feet by 75 feet, and reaches 85 feet in height. There are a high altar, statuary, stations of the cross, stained glass windows and pews. All of these arrived from Europe. They were a source of pride and beauty, but the beautiful choir loft was left unattached.
A conventional staircase would take up an entire side of the small chapel destroying the symmetry and reducing the seating capacity. That would never do! The Mother Superior Mother Magdalene called the nuns to a novena to St. Joseph the Patron Saint of Carpenters. They needed a Heavenly solution to an Earthly problem.
The stories vary here, but the official Loretto Chapel website tells us on the last day of the novena, a gray-haired man on a donkey appeared at the convent. He asked to speak with the Mother Superior and introduced himself. He offered to build a staircase, on condition that the Mother Superior would never disclose the name of the craftsman. Mother Magdalene ordered her nuns not to speak with or in any way disturb the master craftsman. She swore herself to secrecy, and even upon her deathbed, refused to divulge the man’s identity.
Some people say the man was a European craftsman. Others claim he had only a hammer, a saw, and a carpenter’s square. But the miracle might be that spanning the entire emptiness of the territory, without any mass advertising or electronic communication, a man capable of this impossible job arrived and began to work.
Some people say the job was effortless and happened quickly. Others say it took 6 or even 9 months to complete. It’s a wonder they don’t require the stairway to be built of alabaster and gold to define it as a miracle.
Alone with his tools and water in heated tubs to soften the wood the man stepped into a place too small for a common stairway and produced a self-supporting double-helix (which in itself contains great mysteries about the origins of life) making two 360 degree turns and 33-steps. The stairway was revolutionary for its day and even evades the understanding of modern architectural engineers. Reports are, even today, no engineer knows how it remains standing, nor has any idea how to duplicate it. It behaves like a spring taking up the stress of any step anywhere throughout the entire structure.
In those days nails were made of iron by a blacksmith and were extremely expensive. Consequently joinery was made by hand like puzzle pieces put together, sometimes using wooden pegs. This stairway does not contain any iron nails or glue.
The wood appears to be spruce but not from the local area. No record exists with lumber yards for the purchase of such wood. Where did it come from? No one knows.
For this author even drawing such a structure to scale would be nearly impossible. But the craftsman created the structure without flaw and it contains 33 steps, one to commemorate each year in the lifespan of Jesus the Christ.
At last the carpenter reported his work done. The legend says, Mother Magdalene called the sisters together for a dinner celebration, but then discovered the carpenter had disappeared. They expected to pay him. He never asked for money. Who was he?
Legends say he was St. Joseph, the husband of Mary, mother of Jesus. No one knows and the dead Mother Magdalene isn’t telling her secret either.
The springiness of the stair was frightening and a bit dangerous. Ten years after the staircase was completed a craftsman named Phillip August Hesch added furniture grade railings completing the work in year 1887. No mean feat in my opinion. A well made banister and it’s many balusters is by any man’s estimate fine woodwork. To produce such a turned piece on such a small platform in the middle of the high desert among people who were not prosperous was amazing. To find any man “out there in the middle of nowhere” who could and would take the project was in my view, miraculous. To even get the message of this need to the right person was miraculous.
Looking at the photos, or touching the very stairs I think no one could say it is not a brilliant work of art and engineering.
Observing this next photo we count 15 slender women standing on the stairway and at least five more on the loft. Assuming each woman weighs an average of 114 pounds we calculate the stairway and loft as we can see it, is supporting a weight approaching 1,710 pounds (777.2 kilos). Mind you, this is a stairway with a century of service “miraculously” supporting all of these dedicated lives. Could I rightly call this a miracle? If my calculation is right about 777 — that is a God-Blessed number indicating perfection! (I did not calculate to reach this number. The number 114 just came to me.)
I contend that we swim in a sea of miracles. I made my living in the health care sciences for many years and found it impossible to deny The Creator and replace Him with a mythology claiming life and the universe occurred accidentally.
Many occurrences can be called miracles. Some people say there are three miracles in this story, other says four. I say more…. Let’s count a few.
Miracles in Texture: God Creates The Universe, God creates Earth and an environment that supports life, God creates life, God appears to Moses and alters physics to usher people out of captivity into a new home land.
Generations of Essene people set themselves apart to maintain the strictest order of holiness, Children are born and raised to maintain the royal line of King David, in that royal line to Joseph and Mary a child is born whom they formally named (in Hebrew) Yahowshua which means “God among us” and implies ” ‘The Christ’ or ‘Our Savior,'” (Generally the name is shortened to the informal “Yashua” or in English Joshua.
French Monks saved the last surviving copy of the Bible before their monastery is destroyed by Muslim invaders.
Seeds planted become a harvest.
Children in Portugal see a vision of the Mother Mary (year 1917) and prophecy.
A cat yowls waking the inhabitants of a burning apartment building in New York City. All escape unharmed.
Two lone Seventh Day Adventist missionary ladies make a wrong turn into a dark city alley. Two dangerous looking boys press themselves against the wall as the ladies pass and one is heard to say, “Did you see the size of those two guy with them women?”
Soldiers give up a World War I battle position and join with the enemy in singing Christmas carols,
Bombs fall all around London but St. Paul’s Cathedral is left undamaged,
An impoverished family in Manila gets the support they need from a stranger and they are enabled to start working and thriving again,
My car breaks down exactly at a freeway exit beside a truck stop just outside of Nowhere Arizona on an early Mother’s Day holiday morning. My chances of getting any help and a place to rest are between slim and none, yet I received the help I needed to survive, got the repairs completed, and continued on.
On the last morning of a novena, a gray-haired man with a donkey and hand tools appeared at a desert chapel in New Mexico Territory, in an obscure impoverished desert town on a mile high plateau. He visited the convent’s Mother Superior and produced an impossibly designed stairway from wood of no known origin, then disappeared unpaid, leaving us more than 140 years later, filled with wonder.
A child is born and you welcome him/her into your life.
Miracles come in many textures, colors, shapes and forms. The miraculous is defined by your viewpoint. Nuns traveled a perilous journey, did the nearly impossible getting a chapel built, and a stranger arrived and built a stairway that virtually no one within a thousand miles could have so much as drawn, let alone built…even today!
Another carpenter comes along and with hand tools builds a furniture grade railing most of us today would be hard pressed to duplicate!
Fifteen women weighing a likely total of 1,710 pounds are photographed standing on this century-old stairway. Who is right to say the entire story and scene is not miraculous?
A couple marries before God and touches the stairway in prayer and thanksgiving. Someone in the crowd of visitors to Loretto Chapel determines to accept Jesus the Christ as his/her savior. To some of us, all of these can be defined as miraculous.
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Author: Dr. Stephen Newdell
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