I’m not one to visit religious shrines like Medjugorie, or check out images of the Virgin Mary appearing in a papaya, or whatnot. Loretto Chapel struck me as one of those kinds of places and I wasn’t planning on visiting. However, the chapel’s gothic spires stuck out amongst the sea of adobe I could see out my LaFonda Hotel window. Eventually curiosity got the better of me and I decided to check it out. I’m glad I went.
As the story goes, the Sisters of Loretto built the chapel as a part of the girls’ school they had founded. The designer of the chapel died before it was finished and without telling anyone how people were going to get to the choir loft. There was no obvious space for a 22-foot staircase in the small chapel. Various carpenters concluded that the only solution was to access the loft by ladder. For obvious reasons, the idea of girls in skirts climbing a ladder in a chapel just did not sit well with the sisters. They offered a novena to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters hoping for a solution to the problem. One day, a man showed up and offered to build the staircase. He disappeared after it was finished and before the sisters could pay him and the mystery began.
The staircase has no visible means of support. It makes two 360-degree turns. Experts can’t explain how it stays together or how it supports the weight of several people. It was built with wooden pegs instead of nails. Lumberyards had no record of anyone buying wood for the chapel. No one has even identified what kind of wood it’s made of. The wood is not native to the southwest.
Legend says that St. Joseph himself built the "Miraculous Staircase." Allow me to augment the rumor even further by noting that Jesus was a carpenter too. Loretto Chapel and the Miraculous Staircase have been featured on Unsolved Mysteries and were the subject of a made for TV movie back in 1998.
Even a modern day religious skeptic like me can appreciate something like Loretto Chapel. For one, it’s a very calming place to be. The lightly painted interior has a soothing affect. Secondly, the staircase itself looks even more perplexing in person. You’ll want to walk up it to check out the choir loft, but they won’t let you.
Loretto Chapel is on Old Santa Fe Trail behind the LaFonda Hotel. It’s about a block from both the Plaza and St. Francis Cathedral. Allow a half-hour for a visit. Summer hours are 9-6 Monday–Saturday and 10:30-5 on Sunday. In the winter, it closes at 5 everyday. Admission is $2.50 for adults. Taking a cue from Disney marketers, you leave the chapel through the gift shop, which stocks mostly religious items. I’m told most stuff is overpriced. For more info, check out the chapel’s web site: www.lorettochapel.com