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St. Joseph and the Staircase Print E-mail
By Matthew Hanley   
Sunday, 18 March 2012

I decided to take the southern route while driving across the country a couple years ago. I’d never been to Santa Fe, and wanted to get a glimpse of its historical riches – especially its mission churches, which predate the ones in California (from the 1770s) I have known from my youth.

Santa Fe’s old town square district is charming and lively. Only a few blocks away from the cathedral stands one of the oldest churches in the United States – the San Miguel chapel. Its huge wooden support beams, visible throughout the interior, are as indicative of its surroundings as its adobe walls, constructed in 1610. The distinctive devotional artwork within, deriving from Spain, also seizes the eye. Its compact earthiness, relative lack of height, and dearth of windows makes it reminiscent of the Romanesque.

Only a few steps away lies the chapel of Loretto, which, by contrast, looks transplanted directly from Europe. Built in the 1870s, its style is French Gothic. In fact, it was inspired after the Sainte Chapelle in Paris. Elegant in its own right from both the exterior and interior, its real claim to fame – as I was to discover only upon visiting – is its remarkable wooden, spiral staircase. 


           The San Miguel Chapel

Here’s how it came to be. The recently arrived sisters of Loretto were pleased with the progress of the chapel – quite a sophisticated undertaking in such a remote corner of the new world – whose construction they had placed under the patronage of St. Joseph (whose feast day is tomorrow, by the way).

Only as construction was winding down did everyone realize that they had not devised a means for the nuns on the ground floor to access the choir loft above. They needed stairs of some sort, but given the height of the loft, a typical staircase would necessarily invade too much space below and seriously detract from its intimacy and integrity.

The sisters consulted with local carpenters, but none could provide a feasible proposal. They were in a bind. So they decided to pray a novena to St. Joseph. And on the ninth day, a man showed up on a donkey and offered to do the job. He had with him only a saw, a T-square, and a hammer. He worked alone. Accounts differ as to how long he took to complete the task, but it was likely at least several months.

The man solved the dilemma by creating a spiral staircase that made two complete 360 degree rotations. Typically such circular staircases require a vertical pole for support down the center, but he did it without one. He used no nails or screws – only wooden pegs as fasteners. At every step, the wood is perfectly curved. He’d soaked his wood in tubs of water the sisters had provided – but how exactly did he get all the curves just right?

Well, the net result, by all accounts, was a true masterpiece of craftsmanship and beauty –staggeringly produced with the most rudimentary instruments by a single, supremely skilled man.                    

When it was all finished, the ecstatic nuns went to pay the man. But they could not find him. He had simply left. They checked with the local lumber suppliers, thinking that at least they could pay for the wood. But they didn’t know what the sisters were talking about.

Speaking of the wood, the Mother Superior in 1960 reported: “Many experts have tried to identify the wood and where it came from. No one has ever been able to give a full report on it.” The one thing they knew by then was that this particular wood did not come from New Mexico.

Since then, a forester and wood specialist was given a sample of the wood, and spent over a year scientifically analyzing it. He produced a technical report, which I picked up in the gift shop. He was first able to determine that it was a cone-bearing evergreen, and later, a spruce. But what kind of spruce – which subspecies? Further molecular investigation revealed that it came from an extremely cold climate. This only confirmed it was definitely not local.

Ultimately, he could find no specific match in the scientific record for this particular type of wood. It has no known origin.


           The St. Joseph staircase at the Loretto Chapel  

There are skeptics of this entire narrative, of course. But they have not provided an irrefutable explanation for this “miraculous staircase” – as it is commonly called. The subject of television movies and specials – even an “unsolved mystery” segment (none of which I’ve seen). It remains a source of fascination and wonder.

It’s hard not to notice that the carpenter left without saying a word, just as St. Joseph is silent throughout the Scriptures. Many feel that St. Joseph himself actually built it. The sisters and the entire local Church, however, were always properly reluctant to comment definitively – saying only that they knew it was somehow an answer to their prayers.

In her autobiography, St. Teresa of Avila could not have been more effusive in testifying to St. Joseph’s capacity for intercession; she obtained through him not only healing of temporary paralysis but also countless other and what she regarded as greater benefits for her soul. She regularly took to making requests of him on his feast day, which were granted without fail or at least, as she puts it, redirected for her greater good.

Having received blessings that far exceeded what she had asked of him, she wanted to convince everyone to be devoted to St. Joseph, imploring: “I only beg, for the love of God, that anyone who does not believe me will put what I say to the test.”

That inviting challenge remains before us, with all our needs and uncertainties, to be accepted.

Matthew Hanley is, with Jokin de Irala, M.D., the author of Affirming Love, Avoiding AIDS: What Africa Can Teach the West, winner of a best-book award from the Catholic Press Association. His latest report, The Catholic Church & The Global AIDS Crisis is now available from the Catholic Truth Society, publisher to the Holy See in the U.K.


 
 
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Comments (29)Add Comment
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written by Other Joe, March 18, 2012
Hear, hear.
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written by Manfred, March 18, 2012
Th priests in our Chapel are continually reiterating with us the efficacy of prayer. Thank you, Mr. Hanley, for sharing this miraculous item with us which I have read before but I never cease to enjoy.
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written by Mack Hall, March 18, 2012
Dear Mr. Hanley,

I was so afraid that you were going to employ that patronizng adjective "vibrant" in the second paragraph but you didn't and so your kind words really do respect the culture of the Plaza. Thank you!
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written by Dave, March 18, 2012
The story of the Miraculous Staircase occurs in my life with something approaching astonishing regularity. I cannot tell why except to believe that I and everyone else who learns of it are being enjoined to beseech the Holy Patriarch for his powerful intercession. The battles we are facing on all fronts at this time will be overcome only through efficacious prayer -- and the key word is "efficacious." We are all too familiar with beseechings, supplications, pleadings that seemingly go unanswered while situations stay the same or, worse, deteriorate. The key lies in our prayer, where we gain the wisdom and strength to endure our situations and offer them up for the conversion of the world or to change them. If no less than St. Teresa of Avila considers St. Joseph to be the master of the interior life, well it behooves us to turn to him unceasingly to ask his intercession that we become people of interior life upon whom Our Lord can truly rely, whether in our current situations or to change them. Thank you, Mr. Hanley.
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written by markrite, March 18, 2012
Dave's comment is by far the most 'efficacious' of all that I've read here. No doubt Jt. Joseph is one of the MOST effective of all the saints; and why not? He's the foster father of DIVINITY, no less. Just like his MOST HOLY SPOUSE MARY, Joseph has been INUNDATED with DIVINE GRACES. And he does not fail anyone (in most cases) if prayed to in a spirit of sacrifice and with maximum spiritual intensity. I know for I pray to him constantly to intercess for me with Our Lord. Exteremly powerful, extremely effective. Pray for me, Holy St. Joseph, patron of the workingman and of the heads of families. And, Joseph, DELIVER US from the EVIL in the White House. (St. Joseph is also know as the "TERROR OF DEMONS)" GOD BLESS ALL, MARKRITE
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written by Dave Rigg, March 18, 2012
I have seen the staircase many times as I went to college in Albuquerque, about 70 miles south of Santa Fe. It is truly a beautiful sight to behold. I am partial to believing that it was St. Joseph himself.
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written by Jim from Utah, March 18, 2012
Other than the Mother of God, there is no-one greater loved by Christ and there is no-one greater intercessor.


His head was adorned with a crown of jewels even in this life. ~Roman Missal, 1962.



BTW. I wouldn't be suprised if the wood is Lebanon cedar.
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written by Graham Combs, March 18, 2012
Since at least the beginnings of the industrial revolution, the Holy Fathers have spoken on the worth and dignity of work and the worker. Perhaps there is or can be in work a quality of holiness. That demoralization and depression often accompany unemployment may reflect this. It is certainly my experience.

Thank you Mr. Hanley for this comforting story.
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written by mts1, March 18, 2012
I was told about this staircase in grade school by one of the nuns, but without any details, and so I chalked it up to a cute but hyper-devout fable. Seeing the photo and knowing it is a real place, I have done a complete turn, and would one day like to visit this miracle, for it could be nothing but one! St. Joseph, pray for us!
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written by Strossmayer, March 19, 2012
Unfortunately, neither the Sisters of St. Loretto nor the Diocese of Santa Fe currently own the property. It was sold to a private company and is now operated as a for-profit museum and wedding hall. I have no reason to doubt that they conduct business in an honest, respectful manner – but I must confess, I am astonished that those in the Church who owned this edifice allowed it to become a tourist attraction. The chapel (yes, and the staircase) were built to worship God, not to profit men.
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written by victor, March 19, 2012
Every time I have something real important to request from the Lord, I always course my petition/s thru the kindness of St. Joseph by reciting the 30 consecutive days Novena to St. Joseph and his Holy Cloak. If for some reason, one cannot recite the prayer on a particular day, one may make up for it by reciting it on the 30th day as many times as the recitation was missed. Just like what St. Teresa said: "If you really want to believe in it, prove it to yourself by reciting the Novena - and you will finally be convinced." And Jesus Himself said to St. Margaret: "I wish that everyday you offer special prayers to my mother and St. Joseph, my most sweet guardian." And the Blessed Mother said to the Venerable Dagreda: "You must see to it that you continually increase your love and devotion to this great Saint; you must avail yourself o his protection; for indeed, whatever my devoted spouse requests in Heaven, the Almighty God will grant on Earth." Happy Feast Day, St. Joseph,my patron and my advocate. Thank you very much for your intercessions.
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written by Tito Edwards, March 19, 2012
Southern route!?

Hah, the true Southern route is I-10, not I-40.

;)
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written by Arline, March 19, 2012
I have been to see the Miraculous Staircase, and it certainly is a stupendous work of art! Takes one's breathe away it's so beautiful! I believe St. Joseph is responsible for this masterpiece! It surely doesn't look "man-made" but heaven sent!
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written by donna, March 19, 2012
Interesting....at the private owner's website it is written that the Our Lady of Lady of Light Chapel was informally deconsecrated as a Catholic Chapel.

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written by Jacques Fasquelle, March 19, 2012
In regard to the St. Joseph staircase at the Loretto Chapel I have my own theory. Do to the similarity of the design of the staircase to the molecule of DNA, I don't think it was Saint Joseph who came to build it. I believe Saint Joseph said to his divine son: "You better go and take care of your spouses of Loretto, they are having a problem getting to the Choir Loft"
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written by Jacques Fasquelle, March 19, 2012
I have my own theory about The St. Joseph staircase at the Loretto Chapel. I don't think it was St Joseph who came to build it. Do to the similarity of the staircase to the molecule of DNA, I think St. Joseph told his Divine Son: "Your spouses of Loretto in Santa Fe are having a problem getting to the choir loft to sing for you during Mass, you better go and see what you can do for them"
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written by Janice , March 19, 2012
We have seen this staircase several times. It is beautiful. And a must see in Sante Fe.
There is also a Catholic Chapel on the road to Taos that has a miriculous painting that is also worth seeking out. They displayed it with the story some nights of the week.
It scared our 10 yr. old son!
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written by Denise Richardson, March 19, 2012
I have seen this staircase on a trip to Sante Fe. I also noticed the DNA double helix strand similarity in the design used hundreds of years before DNA strands were even discovered. DNA is the building block of life, let alone a staircase. To me that proves divine origin of the staircase.
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written by Mary , March 19, 2012
When I visited the chapel, the staircase was roped off and access forbidden. I couldn't help myself. I ducked under the rope and touched the stairs I believe were made by St. Joseph.
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written by Rita Biesemans, March 19, 2012
ODE TO SAINT JOSEPH

Joseph, humble, silent vase
of splendor and abundant grace
protector, defender of our Lord
as a strong and flaming sword

Joseph, most just, most pure
what no man could ever ensure
guardian of the holy house
stronghold of your Holy Spouse

Joseph, treasurer of the Heavenly King
for Whom the angels in adoration sing
so underestimated in the world's eyes
with whom you never did compromise

Joseph, without titles behind your name
you never sought perishable fame
you were an honest simple worker
envied and attacked by the evil lurker

Joseph, example of husband and father
you never thought of yourself, but rather
in obedience to God, with love and humility
you shouldered the caring responsibility

Joseph, assist us in our daily tasks
never forsake us nor the one who asks
to be non-judgmental and steadfast
to obtain those virtues of yours at last.

Rita Biesemans March 19, 2011
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written by Edward, March 19, 2012
Thank you Jesus for such wonderful miraculous reminders great and small!
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written by Luciano, March 20, 2012
It really fits and any one that doubts should build one and then in failure respond with heartfelt sorrow.
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written by Medly, March 20, 2012
Has there ever been some engineers, architects, or expert builders to determine if this sort of structure is even POSSIBLE?

I appreciate the devotional aspects of your essay. Now how about exploring the mechanical/structural.

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written by Tamara, March 20, 2012
My mother went to Our Lady of Loreto school in Santa Fe the 1960s, and they used the staircase regularly. She remembers going up and down for masses to sing in the choir loft.
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written by thomas , March 20, 2012
yes St. Joseph did build it, yes the structure is possible and yes it is such a simple structure greatly enhancing the beauty of it..
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written by Ed Micca, March 21, 2012
As appealing as the story is of St. Joseph "miraculously" building the Loretto staircase for the good Sisters, it isn't true. Based on years of extensive research, the truth is the carpenter was Francois-Jean Rochas, a member of 'les compagnon,' a guild of celibate and secretive craftsmen. And he was far from saintly. Reclusive and irascible, he ended up dead in his Dog Creek cabin, either by suicide or assassination. The chapel's contractor, Quintus Monier, named Rochas as the builder of the stairs. An 1881 entry into the sisters' logbook indicates Rochas was paid $150 "for wood." There are receipts for payment to Rochas for work done. Originally the staircase had no railing - it was added later for safety reasons. The story of the "miracle" was created and perpetuated by the good Sisters to answer those astounded by this engineering marvel who found it impossible to believe a mere mortal could have built it.

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written by Janine, March 21, 2012
We arrived in Sante Fe, Tuesday afternoon, March 13, 2012.
We parked the car. Our first destination - to honor St. Joseph.

It was sad to see the Sanctuary of Life lost...but the STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN still stands! And it still invites one to experience the Wonder of Creation!

I was wowed to learn that the original carpenter built it without rails of any kind - it was just the stairs. Story said the nuns were too afraid to traverse it, so they hired a local to add the extra protection.

Ahh, to trust God completely as we climb higher and higher toward Him takes much faith and courage!

I am so grateful my family and I were provided the opportunity by His Grace to BE there, and to carry the memory of the Winding Wood home with us.

Thank you for your article...another gift!
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written by David Arinzechi, March 31, 2012
Thanks for the write-up!

I heard about this miraculous stairway being told by a Priest on the Feast day of St. Joseph 19th March. I was moved that I thought I have to get more information on it; and if God permits, I would one day visit the house.

"Iter ad Joseph"! I have never really asked St. Joseph for anything and he failed to 'show up'! I am not surprised that he showed up on the last day of the novena. Believe me - he always shows up; and to those who are devoted to him here on earth he protects "stubbornly" from ALL the activities of the Evil One. He, without doubt, shows up at the hours of death of all his faithful children in order to take them to heaven.

We should have great confidence in handing over our loved ones who are at their last agonies ( together with souls in purgatory) to St. Joseph - he would surely show up and take them to heaven.

We should never be afraid to ask him, 'for this and for that' - he will always show up and many times, with his Wife and His Son - The Holy Family!!

Blessed be Saint Joseph, her Most Chaste Spouse!!
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written by Sharon, August 29, 2014
Why do people try to discount this story if the Spruce wood has been analyzed but it is an unknown species. The wood can be found in Alaska, so what did he do? Fed-Ex it? Just believe in miracles by examining the staircase!

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