At the end of the Old Santa Fe Trail stands the Loretto Chapel. Inside the Gothic structure is the staircase referred to as miraculous, inexplicable, marvelous and is sometimes called St. Joseph’s Staircase.
The history of the Loretto Chapel began when Bishop Jean Baptisite Lamy was appointed by the Church to the New Mexico Territory in1850. Bishop Lamy, seeking to spread the faith and bring an educational system to this new territory, began a letter writing plea for priests, brothers and nuns to preach and teach. In one of his letters he is said to have written, “I have 6000 Catholics and 300 Americans.” The first acceptance of his general plea was from the Sisters of Loretto.
In 1852 the Sisters of Loretto responded to Lamy’s pleas by sending seven sisters who agreed to make this arduous journey to Santa Fe. Their trek was through St. Louis, then up the river to Independence, Mo. This small group was beset by a cholera epidemic, the Mother Superior died, and another nun was too ill to continue the journey and returned to Kentucky. An additional story continues that they traveled by wagon through bad weather, and Indian country.
The Sisters arrived in Santa Fe in 1852 and opened the Academy of Our Lady of Light (Loretto) in1853. The school was started and grew from very small beginnings to a school of around 300 students, despite the challenges of the territory (smallpox, tuberculosis, leaky mud roofs and even a brush with the rowdy Confederate Texans during the Civil War).
The school was started in 1853 and grew from very small beginnings to a school of around 300 students. The campus covered a square block with 10 buildings. Through tuition’s for the girls schooling, donations, and from the sisters own inheritances from their families, they built their school and chapel.
Jean Baptiste Lamy brought architect Antoine Mouly and his son, Projectus Mouly from Paris, France to Santa Fe to be architect – builders for what is now St. Francis Cathedral. It required ten years to build. During the first period of construction, and as an apparent afterthought, Archbishop Lamy advised and encouraged the sisters to utilize the father and son to design and build their dream chapel. The older Mouly had been involved in the renovation of Sainte Chapelle, in Paris, in the early 1800’s. Mouly was encouraged to fashion the Loretto Chapel after the Sainte Chapelle. It was the favorite chapel of the archbishop from his early days in Paris, France. It is reported that the sisters pooled their own inheritances to raise the $30,000 required to build this beautiful Gothic chapel.
It was decided that the school needed a chapel. Property was purchased and in 1873 work began on the Loretto Chapel. Undoubtedly influenced by the French clergy in Santa Fe, the Gothic Revival-style chapel was patterned after King Louis IX's Sainte-Chapelle in Paris; a striking contrast to the adobe churches already in the area.
Stone for the Chapel was quarried from locations around Santa Fe including Cerro Colorado, about 20 miles from Santa Fe near the town of Lamy. The sandstone for the walls and the porous volcanic stone used for the ceiling were hauled to town by wagon.
The ornate stained glass in the Loretto Chapel also made part of its journey to Santa Fe via wagon. Purchased in 1876 from the DuBois Studio in Paris, the glass was first sent from Paris to New Orleans by sailing ship and then by paddle boat to St. Louis, MO. where it was taken by covered wagon over the Old Santa Fe Trail to the Chapel.
The Chapel was completed in 1878 and has since seen many additions and renovations such as the introduction of the Stations of the Cross, the Gothic altar and the frescos during the 1890s.
The Miraculous Staircase, which legend says was constructed or inspired by St. Joseph the Carpenter, was built sometime between 1877 and 1881. The stairway confounds architects, engineers and master craftsmen. It makes over two complete 360-degree turns, stands 20’ tall and has no center support. It rests solely on its base and against the choir loft. The risers of the 33 steps are all of the same height. Made of an apparently extinct wood species, it was constructed with only square wooden pegs without glue or nails. It took at least six months to build.
The Loretto Academy was closed in 1968, and the property was put up for sale. At the time of sale in 1971, Our Lady of Light Chapel was informally deconsecrated as a Catholic Chapel. Loretto Chapel is now a private museum operated and maintained, in part, for the preservation of the Miraculous Staircase and the Chapel itself.