Our Story begins in 1850 when the Vicariate of New Mexico was established under the first Bishop of the Territory, Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy. Seeing a need to educate the girls of the Territory, Bishop Lamy sent a plea to Catholic teaching orders to open a school for girls. The Sisters of Loretto responded and sent six sisters to open the Loretto Academy. Having been recently under Mexican rule, the Territory of New Mexico was full of Spanish-speaking citizens, so the six had to learn the Spanish language and, after an arduous trip during which the Mother Superior died, finally arrived in Santa Fe and opened their school in 1853.
By 1873, the Sisters were able to start the construction of a Chapel. Using the same French architect and builders as Saint Francis Cathedral Basilica, the Chapel of Our Lady of Light (as it was then known) was patterned after Archbishop Lamy’s favorite Sainte Chapelle in Paris. With its gothic-style architecture, the Chapel certainly would have stood out among the small adobe homes surrounding it at the time.
Unfortunately, the architect died before access to the choir loft was built. Given the height of the loft and the small size of the Chapel, a staircase would have taken up too much floor space, thereby reducing the seating capacity to an unacceptably small level. Legend states that seeking guidance and help, the Sisters of Loretto prayed a nine day novena to St. Joseph, Patron Saint of Carpenters. A novena is a special prayer said for nine consecutive days. On the final day of the novena, a carpenter appeared with only a hammer and carpenter’s square. He built what is now known as the Miraculous Staircase with simple tools and wooden pegs. The rare wood is not native to the American Southwest. When the Staircase was complete, it is said that the carpenter disappeared without receiving thanks or payment. The Sisters tried all local lumber stores but could not find accounts open for supplies for their stairs. Some believe the carpenter was St. Joseph himself while others believe that is was someone sent by St. Joseph. What is known is that the Sisters of Loretto prayed, and their prayers were answered.
The Staircase has two complete 360 degree turns with no center pole for structural support. The entire weight of the staircase rests on the bottom stair. The banisters were added approximately ten years later due to the difficulty of climbing the tall, tapered stairs with no railing. The two small brackets that can be seen on the outside connecting the stairs to the wall and pillar were added in the mid 20th century in order to provide more support and protect the staircase from negative effects due to vibrations from passing cars and trucks. Unfortunately, rather than helping the structural integrity of the Staircase, the modern brackets damaged the sides of it by preventing the natural spring-like movement of the Staircase while in use. The underside of the stairs were originally open, but was filled in with a horse hair and lime mixture painted to look like wood.