Friday, November 13, 2009

The Miracle Stairway

"Did you get a chance to see the Loretta Chapel when you were in New Mexico?"

This question was posed to us by our friend John, an architect in Tilghman Island, MD, and my cousin Karen and husband Dick, following our visit to Albuquerque earlier this year.

Unfortunately, we had not been able to make the trip to Santa Fe to see the feature of this chapel that has been called a miracle.

But early in our current visit to Albuquerque, I drove to Santa Fe and learned the story of the chapel's miracle.

Over 100 years ago, the Sisters of Loretto, brought to Santa Fe by Bishop Lamy to teach the people, needed a school and a chapel. Mexican carpenters completed the school, and then plans were made to build a chapel. Because Bishop Lamy was from France, he wanted the Sisters to have a chapel designed in the same style as the Sainte Chapelle in Paris.

French and Italian masons went to work on the chapel, and although there were some financial worries, the chapel progressed without difficulty and with the aid of prayers by the Sisters to Joseph, the carpenter saint. Completed in the 1878, the chapel is believed to be the first Gothic structure built west of the Mississippi.

When I entered the chapel, I was struck by the beauty of the altar. I had expected a more simple, "humble" appearance.

When I learned that the statues and Stations of the Cross (left) were made of pressed ceramic dust and painted to look like marble, I appreciated the creativity of the nuns who oversaw the construction of the chapel.

Lastly, learning that the altar is similarly made of wood and painted to resemble marble, I appreciated the emphasis on simplicity and reverence over ornate designs.

This was one of two large stained glass windows that made the trip from Paris by boat and wagon train to Santa Fe. Some people felt that getting this fragile glass to the chapel unbroken was itself a minor miracle.

But these beautiful features of the chapel were not the miracle that has attracted world-wide attention.

It seems that it wasn't until the very last stage of the chapel's construction that the terrible design error was revealed. There was no way to get from the chapel to the choir loft, which was exceptionally high. And there was no room for ordinary stairs to be built. After several carpenters told the nuns that a traditional stairway could not be built, the nuns decided they would not do anything until they could make a novena (nine days of meditation and regular prayer) to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters.

On the last day of the novena, an old gray-haired man, carrying a toolbox containing only a hammer, a saw, and a T square, appeared on a donkey.

It took him eight months to complete the beautiful and sturdy spiral staircase using no nails and providing no center support.

He had done it in a very small space, making two complete 360 degree turns with mysteriously perfect curves and using pegs to hold the 33 steps together as the stairway climbed 21 feet.

When the work was done, the carpenter disappeared without collecting his pay or leaving his name.

It was interesting that a stairway had to be built because the nuns did not want to climb a ladder to the choir loft. But the original stairway had no banister--which seems more "challenging" than a ladder. The railing, which I think is an equally stunning piece of woodwork, was added in 1887 because the sisters were afraid to climb the stairs.

As the chapel's web page states: "Architects will tell you it should have crashed the moment someone set foot on it. Scientists will say it defies the law of gravity. Lumber specialists disagree on the type of wood used. Carpenters said it was impossible to build in such a small space.

But the Sisters of Loretto know. It was a miracle."

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