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Santa Fe Historic Sites: Loretto Chapel

The Loretto Chapel- Santa Fe, NM.
The Loretto Chapel- Santa Fe, NM.

The Loretto Chapel located on the Old Santa Fe Trail stands gothic in structure with the famous stairway inside referred to as miraculous, inexplicable, marvelous and sometimes called St. Joseph’s Staircase. This staircase has for decades confounded architects, engineers and master craftsmen alike as it makes two plus complete 360-degree turns, stands 20’ tall and has no center support. Resting solely on its base at the bottom and against the choir loft on top, the 33 steps are all of the same height. A non-indigenous wood creates the structure with square wooden pegs and no glue or nails (thus miraculous) were used in the construction.

History of the Loretto Chapel dates back to Bishop Jean Baptisite Lamy who appointed in 1850 by the Church to the New Mexico Territory sought to spread the Catholic faith. Bishop Lamy brought an educational system to the new territory pleading for priests, brothers and nuns to come to Santa Fe to preach and teach. Documented letters show his writings, “I have 6000 Catholics and 300 Americans”!

The Sisters of Loretto were first to accept the calling in 1852. Seven sisters agreed to make the arduous journey to Santa Fe by wagon through bad weather and Indian country. They were beset by a cholera epidemic causing the death of the Mother Superior and another to became so ill she had to return to Kentucky. Five remaining Sisters arrived in Santa Fe in 1852 to begin the Academy of Our Lady of Light (Loretto) in 1853. The little school grew to serve 300 students despite the challenges of smallpox, tuberculosis, leaky mud roofs, a brush with rowdy Confederate Texans during the Civil War and inadequate of funding. The school consisted of 10 buildings on land the size of approximately one square block with the chapel and school building fund coming from the girls school tuition, donations, and the sisters own family inheritances. In 1873 it was decided the school needed a chapel and the sisters pooled their own inheritances reportedly raising $30,000 required to build the beautiful Gothic style chapel- now referred to as “Loretto Chapel”.

During this same time period, Architect Antoine Mouly and his son, Projectus were commissioned by Archbishop Lamy to come from Paris, France to Santa Fe to build what is now St. Francis Cathedral. Lamy encouraged the sisters to use the Mouly’s skills in designing and building a dream chapel. The Gothic Revival-style chapel, patterned after King Louis IX’s Sainte-Chapelle in Paris is in striking contrast to the adobe architecture which Santa Fe is known for. It is said the French clergy in Santa Fe had quite the influence in the architectural design.

Loretto Chapel's Miracle Staircase
Loretto Chapel’s Miracle Staircase

Various materials hauled by wagon from nearby villages and towns around Santa Fe were used in the construction of the Loretto Chapel which included quarried stones, sandstone and porous volcanic stone. Also hauled by wagon is the ornate stained glass purchased in 1876 from DuBois Studio in Paris. This beautiful piece was sent by sailing ship, then paddle boat to St. Louis, MO then transported via covered wagon up the Old Santa Fe Trail to the Chapel where it exists today in downtown Santa Fe. Completed in 1878 the Loretto Chapel has undergone many an addition and renovation during it’s life including the introduction of the Stations of the Cross, the Gothic altar and the frescos during the 1890s.

The Miraculous Staircase is legendary and a must see for Santa Fe visitors. It’s said that the Nuns of Loretto had no access to the beautiful choir loft built in the chapel (a major oversight one might say on the part of the architect). The nuns diligently prayed for a solution. They believed a carpenter was sent to them as a solution to their prayers. Afterward, the staircase was singlehandedly built by the carpenter, using no nails or glue and wood not indigenous to the area, the carpenter disappeared without a trace with no payment being accepted. The nuns believe it to be God’s provision- St. Joseph the Carpenter himself who built this exquisite piece of carpentry between 1877 and 1881 and taking only six months to build with two 360 degree turns and no visible means of support. None knew how the staircase could stand as it had no central means of support, no nails or glue were used in its construction and thus the staircase was deemed a “miracle”. God’s answer to prayer.

The Loretto Academy closed in 1968. The little chapel and the property on which it sits was put up for sale. In 1971 Our Lady of Light Chapel was sold, deconsecrated as a Catholic Chapel and is enjoyed today by Santa Fe visitors as a private museum operated and maintained, in part, for the preservation of the Miraculous Staircase and the Chapel itself.

The Loretto Chapel is but one of the many historic sites recommended by Inn at Pueblo Bonito – Santa Fe. Just steps from the inn to the Loretto Chapel will add to your authentic historic Santa Fe travel experience.

Inn at Pueblo Bonito- Santa Fe. Authentic every day of the year!
Inn at Pueblo Bonito- Santa Fe. Authentically Historic any day of the year!
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