In 1872 the Bishop of the Santa Fe Archdiocese, Jean Baptiste Lamy, commissioned the building of a Convent Chapel to be known as ‘Our Lady of Light Chapel’. It would be under the care of a group of nuns, the Sisters of Loretto.
A French architect, Antoine Mouly, created a beautiful chapel with flying buttresses, tall spires and wonderful stained glass windows imported from France. Although on a much smaller scale, the chapel resembled the famous Sainte- Chappelle in Paris.
At the end of the building of the chapel, Antoine Mouly suddenly died and his builders realised that he had not shown plans for a staircase up to the choir loft.
Because the chapel was so small, it would not be able to accommodate a normal staircase. Actually, at that time, a ladder was often used to gain access to the lofts but this was not going to be possible for the nuns, wearing their long habits.
According to the legend, the nuns took to praying for an answer to their huge problem. For nine long days they prayed to St Joseph for his help and the next day, a scruffy stranger appeared who told them he would solve their problem. Overjoyed, the nuns agreed to his only demand, that he be locked into the chapel and not to be disturbed until he had finished.
The stranger disappeared into the chapel with just a few primitive tools, including a saw, a square and some warm water. Three months later, he emerged and when the nuns walked into their chapel, they were greeted with a wonderful sight. Up to their loft, was a carved helix shaped spiral staircase built from non-native wood.
It ascended twenty foot into the air and seemed to hang with no central support. but the central spire of the staircase had been made narrow enough to serve as a central beam.Nowhere was it attached to any pole or any wall, no metal nails had been used, only wooden pegs or dowels.
The nuns were in awe of the stunning staircase, they searched out their stranger to thank him for his wonderful work but he had disappeared. They never saw him again and for them, St Joseph himself, had come to build their staircase.
But it is believed the ‘stranger’ was the young talented French builder, Francois-Jean Rochas, who was only in his early thirties when he built his staircase. (Later he was living in a isolated cabin in the Dog Creek region, even after having been warned there were robbers around. Francois-Jean was discovered in1894 with a bullet to his chest at only fifty years old.)
The nuns and the young female students of the Loretto Academy loved their new chapel with it’s legendary staircase. Ten years later, in 1887, a railing was added for safety and the outer spiral was fastened to it’s adjacent pillar.
The Loretto Chapel was eventually closed but is now a museum and a wedding chapel, so many people can enjoy the sight of the beautiful staircase.