In Foreign Parts: The mystery of Santa Fe's miracle stairway from heaven is solved

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The Independent US

Sooner or later, every visitor to Santa Fe is confronted with a mystery: the enigma of the so-called Miracle Staircase, one of the city's most popular tourist sites in a chapel dedicated to a Catholic order of nuns known as the Sisters of Loretto.

Sooner or later, every visitor to Santa Fe is confronted with a mystery: the enigma of the so-called Miracle Staircase, one of the city's most popular tourist sites in a chapel dedicated to a Catholic order of nuns known as the Sisters of Loretto.

The staircase linking the nave to the choir loft above is a mystery because nobody is quite sure how it was built. Its craftsmanship is undisputed – it twists round upon itself in two tight 360-degree turns without the support of a central beam – but its authorship has seemingly been lost in the 121 years since it was built.

The order says the staircase was the work of a strange, bearded man who spent six months on his masterpiece, and disappeared when it was completed. The nuns had been unable to find anyone to devise a staircase for the tight space and so, as a last resort, said a novena – a nine-day intercession of prayers – to St Joseph, patron saint of carpenters.

The suggestion is that St Joseph did the work. The Sisters claim no record was found of the carpenter's expenses. So for decades, local historians have tried to dig up the truth with scant success. Until now.

The descendants of various late 19th-century craftsmen laid claim to the feat, but had no documentation.

In 1970, The Sante Fe New Mexican newspaper named a Viennese artisan, Yohon Hadwiger, based on evidence from his grandson. But the Sisters wrote Oscar Hadwiger a letter accusing him of fabrication, and he admitted he could prove nothing.

Now, a local historian, Mary Jean Straw Cook, has found evidence to suggest the craftsman was the French-born François-Jean Rochas, who came to the United States as a member of a celibate order of artisans and settled in New Mexico.

Items pointing to his authorship include the testimony of Quintus Monier, who built the nearby St Francis Cathedral, and a death notice in The Santa Fe New Mexican in 1895, describing Rochas as "an expert worker in wood [who] built the staircase in the Loretto chapel". Ms Straw Cook also found in the Sisters' logbook an entry for March 1881: "Paid for wood Mr Rochas, $150.00."

The findings, in Ms Straw Cook's new edition of her book, Loretto: The Sisters and Their Santa Fe Chapel, suggest the staircase was built in France and fitted by Rochas. That would explain why it appeared so suddenly, and why it might have given rise to the legend of the miraculous saint.

Why was Rochas's identity concealed so long? Ms Straw Cook says: "There were those who knew his name but who did not wish to betray the legend. The staircase builder's identity was of little interest to the public until his accomplishment reached legendary proportions sometime during the early decades of the 20th century. By then, those who had known or worked with Rochas were dead."

Remember, too, that New Mexico is a state rife with elaborate beliefs. It is home, for example, to the "tortilla Jesus" – a suggestively-shaped burn mark on a Mexican pancake that has now become an object of worldwide veneration. The Sisters of Loretto, who came to New Mexico in the pioneering days of the Wild West, also had their own tradition of fantastical stories; the founding legend of their order is that the Virgin Mary's house was magically transported from the Holy Land to Loreto near the Adriatic coast of Italy.

Given this rich cultural background, it is not certain how welcome Ms Straw Cook's historical illuminations will be, either to the Sisters or to the tourist trade. Her book is not on sale in the chapel bookshop, and it has not provoked an official reaction from the order.

No doubt the nuns would have preferred Ms Straw Cook to follow the advice of a cynical newspaper editor in the 1962 John Ford western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

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