Loretto Chapel

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by SeenThat on June 20, 2008


The chapel is open daily between 9am and 4:30pm and on Sundays between 10:30am and 5pm;the entrance fee is $2.5. A shop is attached to it as well as the Baleen restaurant and the Loretto Inn. Santa Fe’s central plaza is nearby, thus the best way of reaching the chapel is by foot from there.

Moving Westwards

In the fall of 1852, the Sisters of Loretto left Kentucky and reached Santa Fe through St Louis. They built a convent under the guidance of Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy between 1873 and 1878; it was patterned after the Sainte Chapelle in Paris.

Loretto Academy of Our Lady of Light

In 1873 they began the construction of the Loretto Academy of Our Lady of Light in the shape of a Gothic Chapel, the first one west of the Mississippi. It was designed by architect P. Mouly to be 25’ by 75’ and 85’ in height with a choir loft at the rear.

An Old Man, a Donkey and a Tool Chest

However, in 1878, when the structure was almost finished attention was paid to the fact that there was no way of reaching the choir loft. All the carpenters consulted on the issue said a staircase could not be constructed since it would take up too much room in the chapel.

Being Ladies of Faith, the sisters made a novena to Saint Joseph. On its last day an old man with a donkey and a tool chest appeared and asked for the Sister Superior – Mother Magdalena at that time – and offered help in the building of the staircase.

There are different versions regarding the time it took him to build the staircase; in any case he finished the job using only a saw, a T square and a hammer; soaking wood was seen by the sisters resting within tubs of water. When Mother Magdalene attempted to pay him, he had already disappeared.

The Staircase

The staircase is circular, consisting of 33 steps and two complete turns of 360 degrees without any type of support, it resembles a coiled spring. People who had climbed it – like Sister Ludavine, the present superior – give testimony of a vertical movement of the staircase while climbing it.

The impressive banisters were added in 1887 by Philip August Hesch, and are a work of incredible beauty by themselves. The curved stringers have been put together with great precision. The wood is spliced in seven places on the inside and nine on the outside, with each piece forming a perfect curve. The wood is of a hard variety not native of New Mexico and of unknown source; the local lumberyards have no records of wood being purchased for the project.

It rests against the choir loft at the top and on the floor at the bottom, where the entire weight is supported; no nails were used in its construction, wooden pegs were used instead.

The frail and elegant structure seems to defy any normal principles of construction; more than a century afterwards, no works of similar craftsmanship can be found. Built by a great mind with simple tools, it poses a worthy example to all of us.
Loretto Chapel
207 Old Santa Fe Trail
Santa Fe, New Mexico, 87501
(505) 982-0092


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