Many of you are aware of the famous staircase at the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico. As the story goes, a group of nuns discovered a serious flaw in their newly constructed chapel: there was no means of access to the choir loft! Various carpenters had been asked to solve the problem, but there wasn’t sufficient room to build a stairway. So the nuns prayed a novena to St. Joseph, and on the last day of the novena, their prayers were answered. A man showed up and built a beautiful circular staircase. He left before the sisters could pay him. They did not even know his name. The staircase, it turns out, has no visible means of support that is readily understood by engineers. The origin of the wood is uncertain: the only thing known for sure is that the wood isn’t native to the region. Only wooden pegs were used: no nails. There are exactly 33 steps – one for each year of Our Lord’s earthly life. The nuns believed that St. Joseph himself showed up and built the staircase.
Now the miraculous staircase has some interesting detractors. As to the identity of the carpenter, there is an interesting theory here:
“But wait a minute, says historian Mary J. Straw Cook in the newly revised edition of her 1984 book, ‘Loretto: The Sisters and Their Santa Fe Chapel.’ The carpenter, she says, was Francois-Jean Rochas, a member of ‘les compagnon,’ a French guild of celibate and secretive craftsmen. And he was far from saintly. Reclusive and irascible, he ended up dead in his Dog Canyon cabin, a victim of either suicide or assassination. Cook reached her conclusion after seven years of research and seven trips to France, combing through archives, chancing upon relatives and piecing together scattered bits of history. ‘You try to document everything,’ she said. ‘I have proved this to most historians. They’re convinced this was, in fact, the man.’
Her evidence includes an 1895 article in The New Mexican, in which the chapel’s contractor, Quintus Monier, names Rochas as the staircase’s builder. And a 1881 entry in the sisters’ daybook indicates that a Mr. Rochas was paid $150 ‘for wood.’ Cook has found a freight slip for wood delivered by ship from France and speculates that Rochas brought it over himself. Upon his mysterious death in southern New Mexico, Rochas left three unmailed letters that mention Lamy, later the title character in Willa Cather’s book, ‘Death Comes for the Archbishop,’ and another craftsman who worked on the chapel. The book containing Cook’s evidence was released last month to glowing reviews in various newspapers. The word was out. The legend was solved!”
Solved? Maybe her book is more persuasive, but this article certainly isn’t. If Rochas was in fact employed by the nuns at one time, for who-knows-what kind of work, and if he did – as seems probable – claim to have built the staircase himself, this still does not solve the mystery. What are the chances that a virtually unknown 19th century hermit from Dog Canyon chose to use such extraordinary talent for an obscure chapel in the New Mexico desert? Did he construct other similar marvels anywhere else in New Mexico? In France? Has anyone else been able to reproduce this design, or come close to it? And how does this square with the theories of other skeptics, who propose that the staircase was built in France, shipped to the United States, and merely installed by Rochas? It is not uncommon for men – especially those who are “far from saintly”, as Rochas is described – to take credit for things they didn’t do.
But let us suppose that it was indeed Rochas who built the staircase. That really doesn’t take much of the mystery out of it. So he wasn’t exactly Saint Joseph himself – but one is certainly left wondering what sort of a man he really was, what kind of a hidden life he may have lived, and how he may have been used by Divine Providence.
The real mysteries have to do with the construction of the staircase. This site tries to debunk those mysteries, but does a very poor job of it. “No support? Just look at this iron bracket!”
Right. That ought to do it. In any case, if the staircase is nothing special, the skeptics ought to be able to reproduce it somewhere. Or point to where something similar has been built. I have a feeling it’ll be awhile before that happens.