As the legend goes: The Loretto Chapel was built between 1873 and 1878. As was common at the time, there were no stairs to the choir loft. Since the choirs at most churches were all male, the men could use a ladder to reach the loft. However, the choir here was made up of nuns, who couldn’t climb a ladder for reasons of modesty.
So, the nuns prayed to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters. Within days, a mysterious man showed up with a donkey and a few tools, looking for work. They put him to work on the staircase, however, he wanted total privacy, and disappeared when anyone else entered the chapel. Using a saw, a square, and some tubs of water (to shape the wood), the carpenter built this incredible spiral staircase. When the job was complete, and the nuns tried to find him to pay him, he was gone. Adding to the mystery, no one ever saw wood delivered to the chapel, and local lumber yards sold no wood to the mystery man.
As you leave St. Francis Cathedral, walk down Water Street to Old Santa Fe Trail. You’ll see the steeple of the Loretto Chapel over a wooden fence.
At the entrance, you’ll find this carving depicting Jesus (or some other mysterious carpenter), hard at work on the staircase.
Oh, and did I mention the staircase has 33 steps, the same as Jesus’ age at the crucifixion?
The reason this staircase continues to baffle carpenters and engineers to this day has nothing to do with the legend of its builder. They’re amazed simply by its seemingly absent support system. Most spiral staircases require support from either a nearby wall, or a central post. The Loretto Staircase has neither (except for one small connection to one of the choir loft’s support posts, which it would seem, provides little structural strength). Visitors are not allowed to climb the staircase, however reports from those who have say that the stairs feel a bit “springy”. No surprise there.
Also worth mentioning: the original staircase did not have handrails, they were added later. So, if you theorized that the railings are somehow responsible for the stairs’ stability, you’re wrong.
Note: This trip was first published in 2006.