A century ago, a very remarkable miracle took place in this country, that just now seems to be making the headlines. The people who witnessed it were very excited and jubilant indeed, but surprisingly little mention is made of it in any written form — and then only briefly; to me this is the mystery of the miracle. This miracle, however, is still with us today for you to see, as I did. Perhaps it was meant to be its own witness, to stand the test of time and prove the worth of tradition.
But what is this miracle? It is a beautiful wooden stairway that makes two complete circles as it rises gracefully and uniformly in perfect symmetry. Amazingly, it has no center pole, as every other spiral staircase has, for support. There are no nails or screws in any part of it, nor are there steel plates, angle irons nor anything else but wood and wooden pegs throughout. The curved stringers, which hold the steps, bend in perfect circles as they rise to nearly twenty feet. They are solid boards two inches thick of a variety of fir not native to the place, but claimed by some to be found only in the Holy Land. The steps have been trod upon continuously in the past, yet show little wear.
Carpenters and builders from all over the world are amazed that the whole structure did not collapse the first time someone stepped upon it. But I have seen a picture showing fifteen people walking down them at the same time. Another outstanding fact is that this masterpiece was built by just one man. And witnesses, present at the time of the construction, remarked that the only instruments he used were a hammer, a saw, a T-square, and a few other hand tools, all of which were kept in a small tool chest.
And where is this marvelous stairway? In New Mexico, in the “Royal City of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis of Assisi” commonly called Santa Fe, in a Gothic chapel dedicated to Our Blessed Mother under the tile of “Our Lady of Light.” And most important of all, the people of this “City of Holy Faith” have always believed, and assure us even today, that the man who built this Miraculous Stairway was none other than the Prince of Carpenters, Saint Joseph.
A Pilgrimage to See It
In 1978 I was fortunate to be among the Brothers who were sent to Santa Fe to distribute this Catholic Quarterly and to visit Our Lady of Light Chapel and to see the Miraculous Stairway. Here in Still River, Massachusetts, we had just finished building our own chapel, which is a wooden structure ninety-two feet long by thirty feet wide. Therefore, having had this experience in carpentry and building, we were anxious not only to see the famous staircase, but also to take in every detail of the entire chapel.
We learned on our visit that the Bishop of Santa Fe at the time the chapel was built was from France. It was his wish to have a chapel modeled after the famous shrine in Paris, La Sainte Chapelle built by King Saint Louis. And that is why the Chapel of Our Lady of Light is so clearly like the original. It is a tall and slender stone structure reaching eighty-five feet in height with buttresses evenly spaced against the walls. The red roof is sharply pitched and made of volcanic stone obtained from a nearby quarry. On the inside everything is lightsome, due to the large stained-glass windows. Particularly striking is the beautiful rose window over the choir loft. And rising up to this choir loft is Saint Joseph’s masterpiece.
But before we go any further, let us first prepare the way for Saint Joseph’s arrival in Santa Fe by giving a general view of some of the people, the times, and the circumstances which led up to such an outstanding event.
Setting the Stage
The American flag was raised for the first time over the city of Santa Fe on August 18, 1846, when Major General Stephen Kearny peaceably captured the city from the rule of Mexico. Although the Faith had flourished in New Mexico since the coming of the first missionaries three hundred years ago, the Church at this time was in a sorry state owing to a great lack of priests. The Franciscans had been withdrawn in the 1830s, leaving only a few native priests to administer to thousands of people, and among these were fewer still who remained loyal to their sacred calling.
Then in 1850, in order to solve the problem, Pope Pius IX created the Vicariate of New Mexico, naming as its Vicar Apostolic, Father Jean Baptist Lamy (La-ME) of Covington, Kentucky, who had come originally from France. This action placed all Church affairs of the territory of New Mexico, which at that time included Colorado and Arizona, directly under the jurisdiction of the Holy Father. He was to be their Bishop, and the Bishop-elect, Father Lamy, was to act as his vicar or delegate. Father Lamy was consecrated shortly after, and immediately set out for Santa Fe. An American bishop described him at the time as “a Frenchman, thirty-five years of age, well versed in the doctrine, especially praiseworthy for his mild character and zeal for the salvation of souls.” Without this zeal for the salvation of souls he most likely would have failed in his assignment of restoring the Church in New Mexico, due to the overwhelming difficulties and dangers that he had to face there. Bishop Lamy himself explains some of these:
“The foremost difficulties of our missions are first the traversing of the immense plains which isolate us from the rest of the United States…. We have to travel three hundred leagues (a league is usually reckoned to be approximately three miles) without finding on our way a hut or even a bridge over the rivers, and are always exposed to the arrows of the Indians. Rarely do these savages fail to attack caravans, at times very large ones.”
Yet, in spite of all, this frontier bishop would often travel on horseback over mountains and across deserts with just one companion, “exposed to the arrows” of such Indians as the fierce Apache, Comanche, or the most fierce Kiowas.
In a report to the “Propagation of the Faith” he relates his pastoral visit into Arizona, which took six months:
“I traveled over a thousand leagues on horseback. In some places we had to sleep under the moon and to travel from twenty to twenty-five leagues without a drop of water, walking to rest my horse. . . . On Christmas Day we were able to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice, at which twenty to twenty-five persons assisted kneeling on the ground still covered with snow, which had fallen the day before. We were on a slope of a mountain, surrounded by forests of oak and piñon, silver leaf and cedar trees. . . . At that time there were only two miserable huts. Today you will find this place the capital of Arizona.”
But what fruit was derived from all these hardships? “. . . finding such faithful souls.” He continues, “The ardent faith of our Mexicans, their respect for religion, above all for the Holy Eucharist, their devotion to the Blessed Virgin, is truly admirable. They realize that the priest is the representative of Our Lord Jesus Christ and they render him the greatest veneration. Almost the same can be said of the Catholic Indians”
These faithful people were farmers and shepherds, and, for the most part, they were extremely poor because of the constant depredatory raids of the Indians. Yet, says the Bishop, “As a general thing, our Mexicans have large families and they state with pleasure that the more children they have the richer they are. It is not unusual to meet families of ten, twelve, or more children.” As it appears, the harvest was great indeed and the bishop was always praying and seeking for more priests and missionaries so as to open schools and build more churches; and he assures us that “Divine Providence has blessed in a most visible manner our efforts.”
One visible blessing was his meeting the renowned priest of the Society of Jesus, Father Pierre de Smet, known as “The Blackrobe” to every Indian nation in the Northwest, from Saint Louis to the Pacific. This apostle to the Indians had long been a veteran in the hard ways of the West when the two first met in Saint Louis. Each recognized in the other the same enthusiastic and perhaps reckless spirit of self-sacrifice to save souls, and they became fast friends. Father de Smet proved invaluable not only by his advice, but by taking upon himself all practical business negotiations and transactions of the bishop.
Another notable friend was famous as a soldier and Indian fighter, Christopher (Kit) Carson, a legend of his day. Carson had retired from active service in the Army as a Brigadier General and settled down in Taos, a small town near Santa Fe, where he was baptized a Catholic. On one occasion when a rebellious priest managed to excite the sentiment of the people of his parish against their bishop, Carson, the “Happy Warrior,” was heard to say, “We shall not let them do as they did in 1847 when they murdered and pillaged. I am a man of peace and my motto is: ‘Good will to all’; I hate disturbances among the people, but I can fight a little yet, and I know of no better cause to fight for than my family, my Church, and my friend, the Señor Vicario.”
It also appears that Pope Pius IX was ever watchful for the welfare of Santa Fe, for on his own initiative he gave it the full status of a diocese, confirming Lamy as its Ordinary. Shortly after, the Holy Father presented him with an exquisite chalice taken from the papal treasury. Then, in 1875, he raised the diocese to an archdiocese and sent Lamy the pallium, which is the symbol of an archbishop’s rank. The newly made archbishop, while addressing the people on this occasion exclaimed: “But that the universal Father of the faithful has deigned to cast his eye upon our poor town of Santa Fe, lost in deserts and unknown to the world, is a favor which should arouse our feeling of the most lively gratitude toward the Sovereign Pontiff.”
Yet perhaps the most visible blessing granted by Divine Providence on this archdiocese was the coming of the Sisters of Loretto, for whom Saint Joseph would eventually perform such a unique miracle. Preceding their coming, Bishop Lamy went back East looking for Sisters to teach in his schools. He went to many places but without success. Finally he made a petition to the “Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross” — the first religious institute of American origin. This order was founded by the “Apostle of Kentucky,” Father Charles Nerinx, who incidentally was also responsible for inspiring Father de Smet to come to America.
Sister Richard Marie Barbour, a historian of her forerunners writes:
“Courage typical of the pioneer was in the daughters of Father Nerinx. Therefore, when Bishop Lamy petitioned Mother Berlindes Downs, Superior General, for Sisters to aid him in New Mexico, he received a generous response. Bishop Lamy thought it only fair that the Sisters should be warned of the hardships awaiting them, but the picture he drew of conditions in this diocese merely whetted the appetite for self-sacrifice in these noble women.”
Six Sisters were chosen, and they set out bravely on June 27, 1852. If the devil had had his way, they never would have reached their destination, due to the obstacles he placed in their path. One thing is certain: their title, “at the Foot of the Cross,” is no empty one, for during the next three months they suffered in every imaginable way. Three Sisters fell sick from the cholera and one of these, the superior of the little band, died. Another had to be left behind. Finally, on September 26 the remaining four Sisters made their entry into Santa Fe amid the joyful shouts of the whole town.
Sister Magdalen Hyden was chosen to be the new superior. “Kindness and generosity, traits so much a part of an Irish ancestry, had their living exponent in Mother Magdalen,” wrote Sister Barbour. “Sisters, pupils and priests came to her and left counseled and consoled.” And her successor reports: “Mother Magdalen, a model of regularity and discipline herself, formed a most regular community in Santa Fe.”
During her twenty-nine years in office, ten branch foundations were successfully established from this community — eight in New Mexico, one in Colorado and one in Texas — thus providing thousands of children with a Catholic education. In short, no written word can ever tell the real story of the good accomplished by these dedicated Sisters.
Construction of the Chapel
Most important to our story, however, is that Mother Magdalen was responsible for the construction of the Chapel of Our Lady of Light. Work was begun in 1873 and the chapel was finished and dedicated on April 25, 1878. The Sisters, having saved what they could over the past twenty-one years from tuitions, were able to pay the entire cost of $30,000. Enthusiastically supporting the whole project was Bishop Lamy, who was often seen on the site serving lunch to the Mexican workers.
The architect was Projectus Mouly, who had come from France with his father, Antoine Mouly, at the Bishop’s request that they design and build his cathedral. Antoine was going blind, money was scarce, and work on the cathedral had come to a halt. Mother Magdalen, therefore, took this opportunity to engage the service of Projectus for the chapel.
Sister Blandina Segale, the notable Sister of Charity who converted one of Billy the Kid’s “tiger desperadoes,” while she was stationed at Santa Fe, knew the young Mouly. Her letters to her superior reveal a fascinating picture of this era, as they are filled with interwoven descriptions and stories of Santa Fe, the Lorettine Sisters, and even of Billy the Kid, whom she also tried to convert. But he remained, as she says, “the greatest murderer of the Southwest.” Concerning Projectus Mouly, she writes:
“Dear Sister Justina:
“This Mr. Mouly I speak of is the young artist who so interested me while still in Trinidad. All I knew of him was that he was a highly talented artist, and that he had given up the unprecedented honour for one of his age, not more than seventeen years, the building of a Cathedral and the Chapel of the Sisters of Loretto, because his sensitive, artistic nature would not brook criticism from one who was not capable of drawing a circle on a square, and yet had the power to ‘Lord it over him.’ He withdrew into solitude.”
Sister Blandina was very sympathetic with Mother Magdalen over the loss of the architect, and more than once asked Monsieur Mouly to return to the work, but it was of no avail. Perhaps his leaving explains how plans for a stairway to the choir loft were overlooked. For meanwhile, the work went on without him and it wasn’t until the chapel was almost completed that the omission was discovered.
The Sisters, on first hearing of this, couldn’t understand why it was considered such a problem. Someone then explained that since the choir loft was so high, a conventional staircase would extend far into the chapel, taking up too much room and spoiling the beauty of the interior. The carpenters after much consideration came up with a drastic solution. “There is nothing else to do,” they said, “but rip down the loft and rebuild it considerably lower.” But the Sisters would not hear of such a thing. From the very beginning of its construction, the chapel had been placed under the care of Saint Joseph “in whose honor we communicated every Wednesday (Wednesday is dedicated by the Church to Saint Joseph) that he might assist us,” wrote Mother Magdalen. She then adds, “Of his powerful help we have been witnesses on several occasions.” So immediately they began a Novena to their heavenly patron. Perhaps they promised to name their next school in his honor, for the records show that in 1879, one year after the dedication of the chapel, they founded “Saint Joseph’s School” in Taos.
The reports of Saint Joseph’s actual arrival and building of the spiral staircase have come down to us through tradition, which Sister Barbour assures us began at the same time as the event. There are a few particular details that vary, but generally the accounts run along the same lines.
All agree that on the last day of the Novena a gray-haired man leading a donkey bearing a tool chest arrived at the convent gate and asked to see the superior. He explained to Mother Magdalen that he was a carpenter by trade, and would like to volunteer his services in building the much needed staircase. She was only too eager to accept his offer, but failed to ask his name or where he was from. Going to the chapel, he pointed out where he could make a set of stairs, and how they would be built so as not to take up much space. Having done this, he diligently set to work.
Some say that he completed the staircase overnight. But according to the Sisters present at the time, it took considerably longer. They recalled seeing tubs of water with wood soaking in them. This would explain how the wood was bent and adds to the probability that the actual building time took several months. It is also from the Sisters that we learn that the very simplest of tools were used.
During my visit to Santa Fe I happened to meet Mrs. Deolinda Marie Montoya, who is not only a native of the city but also a graduate of the school opened by Mother Magdalen. Here is the account as she and many others know it today:
“I was fortunate to go to Mass every day for four years while I was in high school at Loretto Academy for girls. The famous staircase did not have a rail at the time, but one was added later for safety. To help preserve the stairs, we were allowed to go up to the choir loft only one at a time.
“An old, old legend tells how the stairway was built. The architect was unable to make steps that would not take up all of the chapel. It is said that several architects tried their hand at it, but could not come to a solution of the problem. The choir loft was without stairs for many years. I understand that Mother Superior was approached by an elderly man who said he could build a stairway within a reasonable area. A Novena to Saint Joseph had been started before this man approached them. No one had ever seen this man before. But it is said he used no nails, just wooden pegs, to hold the stairs together and that the job was completed overnight. When the job was completed, Mother Superior looked all over for the carpenter and asked if anyone knew him. The answer was, ‘No.’ So, the legend is that Saint Joseph himself built them. I myself have marvelled at the way they are made, and I do believe Saint Joseph built them. Since the stairs went up, the people in Santa Fe, which is a city of Faith, have believed to this present day that Saint Joseph made them. This is the way it was told to me by my grandmother.”
From this account we can see today that the lively faith of the people of Santa Fe of Mexican descent has remained unchanged since the time Our Lady appeared at Guadalupe in Mexico in 1531. And many of the Sisters of Loretto have also believed that Saint Joseph himself built these stairs. And why not? Does not the unknown carpenter fit the description of the Saint Joseph we know from Holy Scripture and tradition? He came to Santa Fe as he lived on earth two thousand years ago, a silent stranger known only as a carpenter. It wasn’t until he was gone that he was recognized as Saint Joseph, a “son of David” and, therefore, a king, the chaste spouse of the Blessed Virgin and foster father of Our Lord.
Today, then , let us not fail to recognize him as our patron and intercessor in his unchanged position as “Head of the Holy Family.” Have you a need? “Go to Joseph” as the Sisters of Loretto did, and see what happens!