Representations of the Loretto Staircase Mystery
Archives are full of primary sources that answer historical questions, and the archives at the Loretto Heritage Center are no exception. The archives hold annals, correspondence, annual reports, photographs, journals, audio tapes, and much more that help to answer researchers’ questions. Despite this, the archives do not hold the answers to all the questions we receive. In some cases, the primary sources that answer those questions were destroyed in a disaster, such as the fire that destroyed many of the records pertaining to the founding Sisters of Loretto. In other cases, the records could have been lost or misplaced. It’s just not possible to solve every Loretto mystery using the stacks at the Heritage Center.
One mystery about which we frequently receive questions that we cannot answer is the staircase at Our Lady of Light Chapel, also known as Loretto Chapel, in Santa Fe, NM. The story about the staircase goes something like this: in 1878, the Loretto Chapel was completed, but no staircase was built so that the Sisters could access the choir loft. Many carpenters were called in to see about building a staircase, but they all came to the same conclusion: the chapel was too small for a staircase to be built that would not interfere with the seating. The Sisters made a novena to St. Joseph (the patron saint of carpenters) to help solve their problem. On the ninth day of prayer, a stranger appeared with a toolbox, looking for work. After several months, he completed the staircase that is still in the chapel today. Once the work was completed, the carpenter left without taking pay or giving the Sisters an opportunity to show their gratitude. The spiral staircase he built was an architectural marvel, making two complete revolutions with no middle support. The Sisters searched for the man, even running an ad in the newspaper, to no avail. Many came to believe that it was St. Joseph himself who completed the staircase.
Over the years, many people have researched the staircase mystery, searching for the identity of the carpenter. Some have even come to believe that they have solved the mystery, but to many others, there are still doubts as to who built the mysterious staircase. As might be imagined, the staircase mystery has been told and retold many times. I thought it might be interesting to look at the ways the mystery has been depicted through various media throughout the years.
Comic Book Form
Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact was a comic book series made for and distributed to parochial schools from 1946 to 1972. The Loretto Chapel staircase was the cover story for the March 1960 issue of the series. Written by (former) Sister Jean Catherine Maggio, SL, and an unknown illustrator, The Spiral Staircase: A Modern Day Wonder begins with a tourist family visiting the chapel. Once inside the chapel, a Sister tells them the story of the mysterious staircase. The story then ends back in the present day with the tourist asking who built the staircase.
This is a fun telling of the mystery, complete with colorful depictions of the carpenters who turned down the job and Sisters attempting to climb a ladder to the choir loft. Keen-eyed readers may notice that the illustrator gave the present-day Sisters and the past Sisters the same habit, which is not historically accurate!
You can download and read the comic here.
The Little Church Mouse of the Loretto Chapel was published in the year 2000. It was written by June Kirkpatrick and illustrated by Michele M.K. Brokaw. It tells the story of a church mouse, a resident of the Loretto Chapel, who is lonely on Christmas until he finds a dove flying above the choir loft. He asks the dove to stay with him and relates the story of the staircase and Loretto Sisters in Santa Fe. This too, is a fun retelling of the story, complete with talking animals and colorful, artful illustrations.
The Santa Fe staircase was a frequent subject of Brokaw, and the Heritage Center has in its collection several examples of her work. A note inside the book’s cover indicates that the author and illustrator’s royalties were donated to the Sisters of Loretto.
“The Staircase” Song by J.K. Green
In our box in the archives labeled “Loretto Chapel and Staircase,” I came across a cassette of a song by J.K. Green titled “The Staircase.” There was no other information about the song in our records, and a Google search didn’t reveal much. The song has a copyright date of 1992 for a J.K. Green in Tennessee. After searching the address listed with the copyright, I discovered that J.K. Green is likely Jerry K. Green, who was a country singer from Texas whose LinkedIn profile states that he performed at the Grand Ole Opry and now resides in Tennessee. Although he may have written and performed the song, it is definitely not his voice singing on the tape. Who is the woman performing “The Staircase”? Perhaps that will forever be a mystery, just like the origins of the staircase.
The song is written and performed in a country-western style. I have included the lyrics, so you can sing along.
Docuseries: Unsolved Mysteries Episode 3.10
Search for the “Santa Fe staircase” or the “Loretto Chapel staircase” on YouTube and you will find a handful of videos dedicated to the mystery of the staircase, some more outlandish than others. Some videos depict the mystery as a religious one, while others depict is as a paranormal mystery. You will even find an episode of the famed documentary series Unsolved Mysteries dedicated to the staircase. Unsolved Mysteries, hosted by Robert Stack, was a popular series which originally ran from 1987 to 1999. The show has found a recent resurgence in popularity from a reboot of the series, and its original run can be streamed on Netflix.
Although Sister Rita Marie Romero, SL, was interviewed for the story, Robert Stack’s distinctive voice lends an eeriness to the mystery that the other retellings mentioned here lack. You can watch the clip from the episode here.
The Staircase Made-for-TV Movie
Filmed partially at the Loretto Chapel, The Staircase (1998) stars Barbara Hershey as Mother Madalyn, a fictionalized version of Mother Magdalen Hayden, SL. Mother Madalyn searches and prays for a carpenter to build a staircase to their chapel choir loft, and a mysterious carpenter named Joad shows up to build one.
This is a very Hollywood retelling of the story, complete with insinuating a flirtation or love affair between Mother Madalyn and the carpenter. Those who cherish and admire the staircase mystery may find this retelling a little insulting.