The Miraculous Staircase

The Loretto Chapel

and The Miraculous Staircase

The Loretto Chapel in Sante Fe, New Mexico was commissioned by Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy

and designed by French architect Antoine Mouly with the help of his son, Projectus,

who were said to have modeled it on the historic Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.

Since the elder Mouly was infirm and going blind at this time,

actual construction of the chapel fell to Mouly’s son Projectus, who did a fine construction job until he himself died.

It is here that the so-called “legend of the miraculous staircase” begins.

When Projectus died, the chapel construction went on until it was discovered that no way had been included in the building plans to access the choir loft.

There was no space for a staircase in the small church.

Legend says that to find a solution to the problem, the Sisters of the Chapel made a novena to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters.

A novena is a prayer repeated on nine successive days, asking to obtain special graces.

On the ninth and final day of prayer, a 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 that he needed total privacy and locked himself in the chapel for three months.

He used a small number of primitive tools including a square, a saw and some warm water

and constructed a spiral staircase entirely of non-native wood.

The Miraculous Staircase ascends twenty feet,

making two complete revolutions up to the choir loft without the use of nails or apparent center support.

It has been surmised that the central spiral of the staircase is narrow enough to serve as a central beam—

and the physics of this are most likely true but this was an incredibly difficult construction method for the times.

There was no attachment unto any wall or pole in the original stairway,

although in 1887 — 10 years after it was built — a railing was added and the outer spiral was fastened to an adjacent pillar.


Then, on the day the mysterious carpenter finished, before he could be paid, he walked into the dessert and was never heard from again.

His identity unknown.

The legend grew that the builder was St. Joseph, the carpenter father of Jesus.

The staircase has 33 steps, the age in years of Jesus when he was crucified.

The miraculous staircase still stands today and the Loretto Chapel is visited by tourists and used for weddings and other special events to this day.

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24 thoughts on “The Miraculous Staircase”

  1. Good morning, Mary! Several years ago, we went to the Loretto Chapel. It’s truly one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. I found myself just staring at the staircase and wondering ‘How did he DO that?’ Of course, the story behind it is incredible, too.

    Great blog!

  2. I love this legend. It’s one of those that you want to believe is true with all your heart.

    And what gorgeous pictures! It truly is a marvel. Are tourists allowed to actually climb the stairs? With the tight spiral I wonder how difficult it was to get up and down.

    Thanks so much for sharing!

  3. Amazing story, Mary. I remember watching a movie about this “The Staircase.” It is a remarkable piece of carpentry.

  4. The staircase itself is really beautiful in these pictures.
    I love the legend behind it.
    I’d also like to learn more about the church. I mean think about it. 1887? Sante Fe, New Mexico? A French Architect? Does that sound right to you? Weren’t most churchs (and all buildings) built by the church, a church raising? Sante Fe is an ancient city, though. And connected more to Mexico in some ways, than America. So maybe they had a large populations and fairly advanced ideas.

  5. Oh, I’ve got goose bumps reading your post, Mary. What a beautiful piece of work. And I love the story. Seeing this church has just been added to my bucket list.

  6. What a fantastic story.. I would love to see this church.. I will put it on my bucket list for sure. thanks for sharing this Mary.

  7. Mary, awesome post and pictures. I too would love to see this staircase. William Petersen (the CSI guy Grissom) starred in a movie about this, as the carpenter a few years back. It was terrific.

    This sure would be a glorious place for a wedding, that’s for sure. Good one, Mary. oxox

  8. When they say, “Ten years later a railing was added.’ Do they mean that whole beautiful railing? That wasn’t there before?
    It’s hard to imagine it without the railing, but when I try it’s cool, those stairs so flat, practically floating in the air.

  9. Mary, I love a good mystery and this story has fascinated me for years. I once saw a movie about it and they left the ending to the viewers’ imaginations. I’d love to know who the builder actually was but guess there’s no way to definitively know. Glad you blogged about it. The photos are stunning.

  10. Mary,I actually saw these stairs and still have a postcard of them. I once saw some circular stairs in an old 1800s firehouse which made me wonder if there might be a connection. Assuming the carpenter was of this world, maybe he built firehouses. That would explain why he was so knowledgeable about spiral stairs. Horses can climb up stairs but not down and circular stairs were created to keep horse from climbing to the second floor of firehouses. Apparently, that was once a problem. Thanks for an interesting post.

  11. Great post! I loved reading about this chapel and its spiral staircase. I would love to see this in person some day. I love spiral staircases and have always wanted to see this one. Thanks for sharing this legend with us today.

  12. I’ve read books about this staircase and watch movies about it too, every time I hear about it, it takes my breath away. It’s stunning.

  13. I became acquainted with this story a while back
    and I’ve seen the film mentioned above. It really
    is a story filled with many questions. Concerning
    the questioned “French” connection: our maternal
    grandmother was a native of Mexico. Her father was a Hessian soldier from Germany with a French
    surname. He was a member of a mercenary troup
    sent to Mexico by the Spanish government who
    stayed behind and married our Mexican ancestor.
    You never know where the melting pot begins!

  14. We visited the chapel in 1983 on a trip through the Southwest. Unfortunately, I don’t remember it very well. We rented an RV, had my aunt with us (she was sleeping on the double bed), our two daughters (2nd and 4th grade), a nephew (11 years old), and a hyperactive 7 month old that my DH and I had to sleep with in the little space over the cab. It was a long 2 weeks.
    My husband and I hope to go back again to spend more time in the area and really see everything. I had heard the story of the staircase before the trip and it was on our list of must see places.

    Good post and great pictures.

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