In 1888, the Bishop overseeing the construction of a new chapel for the Sisters of Loretto, an order of nuns in New Mexico, passed away before the chapel’s completion. The Our Lady of Light Chapel was left with several unfinished details, including a large gap between the choir loft and the chapel.
The Sisters of Loretto decided that a ladder would be a less than ideal way to access the choir loft, so they prayed to the patron saint of carpenters (St. Joseph) for 9 days. A mysterious, ragged looking stranger appeared with a donkey in tow and announced that he would build the Sisters of Loretto a staircase. The stranger worked tirelessly for 3 months, then left town as mysteriously as he had appeared, without accepting payment.
The staircase at Loretto Chapel—as Our Lady of Light Chapel is currently known—is unique for numerous reasons. The staircase, constructed from spruce—a wood rare and difficult to source in late 1800s New Mexico—did not have a single nail or conventional support beam. The steep spiral staircase, with its complete circular turns, is held together by simple wooden pegs. The weight of the staircase rests firmly on the bottom stair—an engineering innovation well ahead of its time.
Concerned about the safety due to lack of handrails, the nuns often cautiously ascended and descended the staircase on their hands and knees. Thankfully, supportive handrails were added about 10 years after the staircase was initially constructed.
Today, the Loretto Chapel is open to the public virtually every day and serves as a venue for weddings and other special events. Visitors are currently not allowed to climb the staircase due to erosion from heavy use. You, your friends, and possibly your wedding party can still pose for photos in front of the engineering marvel that the Sisters of Loretto referred to as the Miraculous Stairway.
207 Old Santa Fe Trail
Santa Fe, New Mexico, 87501