afforded at the angle [due to the tapering] and there is an almost vertical drop of several
feet if a number of risers converge on the same point. The construction is dangerous
and may easily lead to bad accidents”. As a consequence, winders are frequently
prohibited by building codes. That is especially true of the spiral stair, which “contains
all the bad features of the winder multiplied several times”.

Such problems seem to have beset the staircase at Loretto, suggesting that, at most, the
“miracle” was a partial one. Safety appears to have been a concern at the outset, since
there was originally no railing. At the time the staircase was completed, one thirteen-
year-old sister who was among the first to ascend to the loft, told how she and her
friends were so frightened — absent a railing — that they came down on hands and
knees (Albach 1965). Nevertheless, despite the very real hazard, it was not until 1887
— ten years after the staircase was completed — that an artisan named Phillip August
Hesch added the railing (Loretto n.d.). No one claims it was a miracle, yet it is
described as “itself a work of art”.

Over time, other problems arose relating to the double helix form. The helix, after all, is
the shape of the common wire spring. Therefore, it is not surprising that people who
trod the stairs reported “a small amount of vertical movement” or “a certain amount of
springiness” (Albach 1965) and again “a very slight vibration as one ascends and
descends rather as though the stair were a living, breathing thing” (Bullock 1978, 14).

Some people have thought the free-standing structure should have collapsed long ago,
we are told, and builders and architects supposedly “never fail to marvel how it
manages to stay in place,” considering that it is “without a center support”. In fact,
though, as one wood technologist observes, “the staircase does have a central support.”
He observes that of the two wood stringers (or spiral structural members) the inner one
is of such small radius that it “functions as an almost solid pole”.

There is also another support — one that goes unmentioned, but which I observed
when I visited the now-privately owned chapel in 1993. This is an iron brace or bracket
point in development in sixteenth-century England and France, with several
“remarkable” examples. To appreciate the architectural and other problems such stairs
present we must recognize that builders use turns in staircases to save space or to
adapt to a particular floor plan. The simplest is the landing turn which is formed of
straight flights joined at the requisite angle by a platform. A variation is the split landing
which is divided on a diagonal into two steps.

Instead of a landing, the turn may be accomplished by a series of steps having tapered
treads. Such staircases are called winders and include certain ornamental types, like that
which takes the shape of a partial circle (known as circular stair) or an ellipse. An
extreme form of winding staircase is a continuous winder in the form of a helix (a line
that rises as it twists, like a screw thread). This is the popularly termed “spiral
staircase” like the example at Loretto Chapel.

Helixes — unlike, say, pyramids — are not inherently stable weight-supporting
structures. They require some kind of strengthening or support. Therefore, in addition
its very existence is inexplicable.

The Loretto legend begins with the founding of a school for females in Santa Fe in
1852. A combined day and boarding school, the Loretto Academy was established by
the local Sisters of Loretto at the behest of Bishop John Lamy. In 1873 work began on
a chapel. Unfortunately some earthly, even earthy events reportedly marred the work:
The wife of Bishop Lamy’s nephew caught the architect’s eye and he was killed for his
interest — shot by the nephew who was distraught over his destroyed marriage.

At this time work on the chapel was nearing completion and, although the choir loft
was finished, the architect’s plans provided no means of access. It was felt that
installing an “ordinary stair” would be objectionable on aesthetic grounds and because it
would limit seating. “Carpenters and builders were called in,” according to one source,
“only to shake their heads in despair.” Then, “When all else had failed, the Sisters
determined to pray a novena to the Master Carpenter himself, St. Joseph” (the father of

“On the ninth day,” reportedly, their prayers were answered. A humble workman
appeared outside, leading a burro laden with carpentry tools. He announced he could
provide a suitable means of access to the loft, requiring only permission and a couple of
water tubs. Soon, he was at work:

As the tale continues:

The Sisters were overjoyed and planned a fine dinner to honor the Carpenter. Only he
could not be found. No one seemed to know him, where he lived, nothing.
Lumberyards were checked, but they had no bill for the Sisters of Loretto. They had
not sold him the wood. Knowledgeable men went in and inspected the stair and none
knew what kind of wood had been used, certainly nothing indigenous to this area.
convent chapel to be named Our Lady of Light Chapel, which would be in the care of
the Sisters of Loretto. The chapel was designed by French architect Antoine Mouly in
the Gothic Revival style, complete with spires, buttresses, and stained glass windows
imported from France. Although it was built on a much smaller scale, the chapel bears
an obvious resemblance to the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.

The architect died suddenly and it was only after much of the chapel was constructed
that the builders realized it was lacking any type of stairway to the choir loft. Due to the
chapel's small size, a standard staircase would have been too large. Historians have also
noted that earlier churches of the period had ladders rather than stairs to the choir loft,
but the Sisters obviously did not feel comfortable with that prospect because of the
long habits that they wore.

The Sisters of St. Loretto relate the story as follows;

Needing a way to get up to the choir loft the nuns prayed for St. Joseph's intercession
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The Loretto Chapel and Its Staircase
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Contest #307 Results
Answer to Quiz #307
May 29, 2011
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1.  St. Joseph

2. It is attached to the column.
It might also be supported by the tightness of the spiral.

3. Unknown, but it could have been a French woodworker named Francois-Jean
"Frenchy" Rochas. Another claim was made by the grandson of Johann
Hadwiger, who was a woodworker from Germany.
This is an artist's rendition of how this staircase looked in the past.

1.  According to legend, who is supposed to have built it?
2.  How is it supported?
3. Who is believed to have been the real builder?
Idea for this quiz submitted by Quizmaster Emeritus Mike Dalton.
Congratulations to Our Winners!

Pam Long                Talea Jurrens
Laurel Fletchner                Diane Burkett
Karen Petrus                Carol Farrant
Marilyn Hamill                Collier Smith
Richard Wakeham                Stan Read
Margaret Waterman                John Chulick
Sharon Martin                Jim Bullock
Debbie Johnson                Deborah Lee Stewart
Patterson Poulson                Robin Depietro
Jim Baker                Jim Kiser
Gary Sterne                James Waring
Tish Olshefski                Peter Norton
Carl Blessing                Joshua Kreitzer
Elaine C. Hebert                Margaret Paxton
Nelsen Spickard                Arthur Hartwell
Nicole Blank                Robert W. Steinmann Jr.
Milene Rawlinson                Don Draper
Rebecca Bare                JoLynn Pfeiffer
Sherry Marshall                Wayne Douglas
Steven Jolley                Evan Hindman
Charlie Wayne                Daniel Jolley
Betty Chambers                Margreet Brouwer
Donna Jolley                Debbie Sterbinksy
Joyce Veness                Cathy McAllister
Comments from Our Readers
I recognized this immediately.  It reminded me of a wonderful vacation my mom and I
had.  In less than a few minutes Mom had managed to talk her way into the Governor’s
office in the Santa Fe state capital.  He had a beautiful hand carved desk.  That was a
surprise bonus on our trip.  Stumbling upon this staircase was a nice vacation surprise,
too.  It is the staircase in the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico.   
Carol Farrant

I live about 300 miles north of this "mystery," and have visited it several
Collier Smith

I had heard this story a long time ago but never found out how the staircase was really
supported.  It was very interesting how they fnally figured this out!       
Sharon Martin

This was an easy one.  Since I live in Colorado, I've been to Santa Fe quite a few times
and am familiar with the Loretto Chapel and the staircase.                           
Jim Baker

Having gone to a school run by the Sisters of Loretto, i was quite familiar with this
Loretto Chapel.                                                                             
Debbie Johnson

Once again, an intro to a subject that I have never heard of before. I have made
several trips to Santa Fe but I have never heard of the staircase. Thanks as always,
great subject.                                                                                        
Jim Baker

I have read about this before. A fascinating legend.                                     
Jim Kiser

According to Wikipedia, by a small inner wood stringer, although I don't
really know what that means.                                                          
Joshua Kreitzer

N.B.  See this YouTube video for the answer:  - Q. Gen.

Interesting story and legend. Glad you brought it up. "Church spiral staircase" brought
up the Loretto Chapel story. The search for artist rendition brought up many renditions,
but not the correct artist.                                                                
Arthur Hartwell

I remembered this chapel from a Games Magazine quiz two years ago. :)
Nicole Blankb
Good One ! Although I have been there, I failed to visit. I think it's so much more fun
to believe! Besides the religious implications, I tell my kids, that life is so much more
fun, and definitely easier, when you still believe in Santa Claus & the Easter Bunny.
Although I know it's probably harder for you, being a hard-core scientist, your life
being filled with mathematics, empirical research  & statistics, facts, data, etc.. I'm
sure we can both agree that unfortunately, science fails to explain everything in our
world!  Besides being Roman Catholic, I, like Agent Mulder.... "Want To Believe", and
like Jerry Garcia & Bob Weir sang ..."I Need A Miracle Ever Day!"
Robert W. Steinmann Jr.
My husband said, "But we all know the builder was really Sidney Poitier".
Milene Rawlinson
Upon doing searches for churches with spiral staircases I realized that it was not at all
uncommon- probably helped to maximize use of space. I may have viewed this actual
location without realizing it because all the circular stairs shown in photos had
bannisters. A google search finally revealed this artist's depiction of how the stairs
in the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe New Mexico, used to appear. Hopefully no one with a
balance problem, for whatever reason, ever tried to climb these stairs. Thankfully the
stairs now have railings.                                                                        
Don Draper

Cool quiz...  amazing how someone could build this with tools from the 1880s.
No laser levels, no engineered wood.                                                 
Evan Hindman

It looks like the staircase is floating. Not only then but i think it is still a masterpiece.
Margreet Brouwer
A Miracle or a Coincidence?
I had an advantage for solving this quiz. One of my aunts, who is
quite religious, sent me a powerpoint presentation about the staircase
on May 29th. (Just a coincidence, I think.) I will have to tell you how
I found her. She probably does not know about the quizzes.LOL I did
have to go the Wiki to get all of the answers since they are not all in
the slide show. Here is the link to the powerpoint slide show.

Gary Sterne
The Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA
is a former Roman Catholic church that is now used
as a museum and wedding chapel. It is known for its
unusual helix shaped spiral staircase (the "Miraculous
Stair"), that may have been created by French
carpenter Francois-Jean "Frenchy" Rochas, although
the Sisters of Loretto credit St. Joseph with its

It has been the subject of legend and rumor, and the
circumstances surrounding its construction and its
builder are considered miraculous by the Sisters of
Loretto and many visitors.

In 1872 Jean-Baptiste Lamy, the Bishop of the Santa
Fe Archdiocese, commissioned the building of a
Helix to Heaven
Joe Nickell
Investigative Files Vol 22.6, Nov/Dec 1998
The CBS television movie “The
Staircase” (April 12, 1998), told how
“a dying nun’s wish to complete her
order’s chapel is fulfilled by a
mysterious stranger” (Bobbin 1998).
Starring Barbara Hershey as the
terminally ill mother superior and
William Peterson as the enigmatic
carpenter, the movie is an
embellishment of the legend of the
“miraculous stairway” at the Sisters
of Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, New
Mexico. The wooden, spiral stair is
thought to be unique, and some claim
Sisters, going in to the Chapel to pray, saw the tubs with wood soaking in them,
but the Man always withdrew while they said their prayers, returning to his work
when the Chapel was free. Some there are who say the circular stair which stands
there today was built very quickly. Others say no, it took quite a little time. But the
stair did grow, rising solidly in a double helix without support of any kind and
without nail or screw. The floor space used was minimal and the stair adds to,
rather than detracts from, the beauty of the Chapel.
Sisters, going in to the Chapel to pray, saw the tubs with wood soaking in them,
but the Man always withdrew while they said their prayers, returning to his work
when the Chapel was free. Some there are who say the circular stair which stands
there today was built very quickly. Others say no, it took quite a little time. But the
stair did grow, rising solidly in a double helix without support of any kind and
without nail or screw. The floor space used was minimal and the stair adds to,
rather than detracts from, the beauty of the Chapel.
for nine straight days. On the day after
their novena ended a shabby looking
stranger appeared at their door. He told the
nuns he would build them a staircase but
that he needed total privacy and locked
himself in the chapel for three months. He
used a small number of primitive tools
including a square, a saw and some warm
water and constructed a spiral staircase
entirely of non-native wood. The identity
of the carpenter is not known for as soon
as the staircase was finally finished he was
gone. Many witnesses, upon seeing the staircase, feel it was constructed by St. Joseph
himself, as a miraculous occurrence.

The resulting staircase is an impressive work of carpentry. It ascends twenty feet,
making two complete revolutions up to the choir loft without the use of nails or
apparent center support. It has been surmised that the central spiral of the staircase is
narrow enough to serve as a central beam. Nonetheless there was no attachment unto
any wall or pole in the original stairway, although in 1887 -- 10 years after it was built
-- a railing was added and the outer spiral was fastened to an adjacent pillar. Instead of
metal nails, the staircase was constructed using dowels or wooden pegs.

The legend claims that the mystery had never been satisfactorily solved as to who the
carpenter was or where he got his lumber, and that there were no reports of anyone
seeing lumber delivered or even seeing the man come and go while the construction
was being done. Since he left before the Mother Superior could pay him, the Sisters of
Loretto offered a reward for the identity of the man, but it was never claimed.
"''This one is wise,'' he said.'' This
one has an old spirit. She has been
among us before.''" Though the
Arapaho Indian on the trail praised
her old spirit, 14-year-old Lizzy
Enders feels anything but wise.
Within only a few days, she has
lost her mother to the fever, been
left by her widowed father at a
convent, and thrust into the
strange world of the Academy of
Our Lady of Light in 1870s Santa
Fe. Born a Methodist, Lizzy just
can''t comprehend Catholicism:
"All this talk of blood and
martyrdom and eating flesh and agony. It was just all too much,
is all." In an attempt to alleviate her misery, Lizzy befriends an
unemployed elderly carpenter and suggests he be hired to build
the missing staircase for the convent''s new chapel. The other
girls at the academy are furious, since they have been praying
for a miracle to complete the stairs, not an old beggar. Can she
convince them that this aged man, with his real tools, is better
than an ephemeral miracle? What Lizzy has to discover for
herself is that sometimes miracles come disguised in nun''s
habits... or carpenter''s sandals.

Based on a legend of a real chapel stairway in Santa Fe, The
Staircase is a lively historical fiction that successfully merges
myth, religion, and old-fashioned pioneer sensibility. Lizzy''s
need to make order of her chaotic world and define the
unknown are timeless teen traits, making The Staircase a
historical novel with real relevance for today''s adolescent.
(Ages 12 and older) --Jennifer Hubert

Available through Tower Books.  Click
Advertisements for the Carpenter were run in the
New Mexican and brought no response.

“Surely,” said the devout, “it was St. Joseph himself
who built the stair”.

No doubt the legend has improved over the
intervening century, like good wine. As we shall see,
there is more to the story. But Barbara Hershey
concedes, “Those who want to believe it’s a miracle
can, and those who want to believe this man was
just an ingenious carpenter can”. Evidence for the
latter is considerable, but first we must digress a bit
to understand spiral stairs.

Spiral and other winding staircases reached a high
to being secured at top and bottom, the spiral staircase is
usually also braced by attachment along its height to a
central pole or an adjacent wall.

Unfortunately, spiral and other winding staircases are
not only problematic in design but are also fundamentally
unsafe. Explains one authority, “For safety, any
departure from a straight staircase requires careful
attention to detail in design and construction.”
Especially, “Because people tend to travel the shortest
path around a corner, where a winder’s treads are
narrowest, the traveler must decide at each step where
each foot falls. This may be an intellectual and physical
exercise best practiced elsewhere. In short, winders are
pretty but inherently unsafe”. Other experts agree.
According to Albert G. H. Dietz, Professor Emeritus of
Building Engineering at MIT, Winders “should be
avoided if at all possible. No adequate foothold is
Hidden support for the

For fascinating info on spiral staircase design, see:
that stabilizes the staircase by rigidly connecting the
outer stringer to one of the columns that support the

There is reason to suspect that the staircase may be
more unstable and, potentially, unsafe than some
realize. It has been closed to public travel since at least
the mid-1970s (when the reason was given as lack of
other egress from the loft in case of fire). When I
visited in 1993 my understanding was that it was
suffering from the constant traffic. Barbara Hershey
implied the same when she stated, “It still functions,
though people aren't allowed to go up it very often”. It
would thus appear that the Loretto staircase is subject
to the laws of physics like any other.

The other mysteries that are emphasized in relation to
the stair are the identity of the carpenter and the type of
wood used. It seems merely mystery mongering to
Read more about the
Sisters of Loretto and the
chapel.  Click
suggest that there is anything strange — least of all evidence of the supernatural — in
the failure to record the name of an obviously itinerant workman.

As to the wood, that it has not been identified precisely means little. The piece given to
a forester for possible identification was exceedingly small (only about 3/4-inch square
by 1/8-inch thick) whereas much larger (six-inch) pieces are preferred by the U.S.
Forest Service’s Center for Wood Anatomy (which has made many famous
identifications, including artifacts taken from King Tut’s tomb and the ladder involved
in the Lindbergh kidnapping). The wood has reportedly been identified as to family,
Pinaceae, and genus, Picea — i.e., spruce, a type of “light, strong, elastic wood” often
used in construction. But there are no fewer than thirty-nine species — ten in North
America — so that comparison of the Loretto sample with only two varieties can
scarcely be definitive.

In the final analysis the “mysteries” of the spiral staircase at the Loretto Chapel are
evidence, not of its miraculous production but instead of its human — quite fallibly
human — manufacture.

Once again I am grateful to Tim Binga, Director of the Center for Inquiry Libraries, for
research assistance and to Ranjit Sandhu for manuscript preparation.