I had the honor thirty years ago of visiting the chapel that the Sisters of Loretto had built for their mission and school in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1878. The stunning Gothic-style chapel, rising out of the desert-like wilderness of New Mexico, was called Our Lady of Light. It was designed by a French architect after the Sainte Chapelle in Paris. Sadly, in 1968, the sisters had to close and sell their school and the chapel. In 1971, the chapel had to be deconsecrated because the buyer wished to turn it into a museum. This, however, was a blessing in disguise.
Why? Because the chapel was thereby preserved, saving it from a possible deconstruction in the aftermath of the “renewal” (remember aggiornamento?) that followed Vatican II — a “renewal” that left dioceses with enormous seminaries, monasteries, and convents that were nearly empty, while also carrying the non-blessing of half-filled churches and schools, the latter having the huge expense that comes with more lay teachers than religious. I speak here merely of the transient material losses; no need to mention the obvious spiritual deluge that poured through the “open windows” and the satanic smoke that wafted through the “fissures” in Peter’s barque, to quote Pope Paul VI. Santa Fe had its cathedral and parish churches to upkeep, so a small chapel of a depleted teaching order could easily have been salable collateral, especially when that small chapel had a problematic staircase that unillumined gullibles actually believed was built by Saint Joseph
As I am sure all of our readers know, the staircase leading up the chapel’s choir loft was the work of a miracle. It was indeed built by Saint Joseph. You can read the astounding story, with all the unexplainable facts (miracles, that is) and the mysteries involved on our website at https://catholicism.org/miraculous-stairway.html.
I only wish to accentuate one aspect of the story of Saint Joseph’s Staircase in order to encourage devotion to this holiest of patriarchs. When certain problems arise, as they will and do for all of us, problems which seem to have no solution, then it is that we must have faith and “go to Joseph,” as the Egyptians did at Pharao’s command, with the son of Jacob. “And when there also they began to be famished, the people cried to Pharao for food. And he said to them: Go to Joseph: and do all that he shall say to you” (Gen 41:55). Joseph means “he will add,” or “increase,” in Hebrew. Jacob means “he who holds the heel” or, other scholars say, “supplanter.” Jacob would “supplant” his elder brother Esau in receiving the blessing due to the first born from his father Isaac. This supplanting of his twin brother Esau began, in a way, in the womb, for Jacob was born literally holding his brother’s heel. Saint Joseph was also the son of a “Jacob” as we have it in the genealogy of Matthew’s Gospel. We would do well to take hold of Saint Joseph’s heel and, with confident hope, beg him for a remedy to whatever problem or special need we have.
This is what the Sisters of Loretto did when their first carpenter abandoned them, leaving them with no access to the choir loft in the chapel he had built for them. The poor sisters had a problem. They were certainly not content to climb a ladder to get to the loft. And a regular staircase would have taken up nearly half the pew space of the little chapel. What to do? They began a novena to Saint Joseph that another carpenter would come, finish the job, and build a staircase in such a way that pew space would not be sacrificed. Their school, by the way, at that time had a hundred girls attending and they filled every pew. A short time after, with Saint Joseph’s aid, their enrollment would “increase” threefold.
It was on the last day of their novena that a stranger arrived, offering his services, carrying tools, and lugging his own wood. But this stranger was exceedingly humble. He insisted on doing his work in the chapel behind a curtain, if I remember the story correctly. And he labored several months, sleeping behind the curtain, eating what the sisters gave him, and never leaving his workplace. The mysterious details of the story, as I was told them by the museum custodian in 1984, were passed on through the sisters as they were first given a hundred years before. I do not think the custodian believed that the talented carpenter was Saint Joseph, but he did believe that the staircase was a singular prodigy that was beyond any skill of a local, then or now. Nor was the wood native to any tree in the southwest, he admitted. A miracle however? No, he just smiled at that. Like his divine Son at Nazareth, one might say of Saint Joseph’s sojourn in Santa Fe, “A prophet is not without honor, but in his own country, and in his own house” (Mark 6:4).
One morning, the sisters came to chapel and the curtain was drawn wide open, and there was the finished staircase. As they looked at the work in wonder, they were overwhelmed with emotion; they were speechless. Their first thought was to thank Saint Joseph, which they did immediately; and then they looked outside to thank his carpenter. But the man was gone. He had vanished, leaving nothing behind but his staircase. No one in town saw him leave. No one had even spoken with him all that time.
The maker of the staircase of Our Lady of Light chapel was indeed humble. He was so humble that, although he could have produced the staircase covertly overnight, I mean presto it’s done, he chose to work as any carpenter would, step by step, even soaking his wood for a long time in a trough to make it pliant. Not that he didn’t want the sisters to discover who he was, because I am sure he did want this; but to discover who he was by faith, not by vision. We must “discover” Saint Joseph, because his greatness is hidden. We will know him by vision in eternity. For now, let us “Go to Joseph” in faith, in trust, and in filial love. The foster-father of Jesus is the chaste spouse of Mary, without him, there is no Holy Family.
Joseph the Miracle-Worker, Joseph the Silent, pray for us!