In stark contrast to the adobe buildings that surround it, the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe New Mexico is a Gothic revival chapel built in 1878 with locally quarried stone, complete with imported Italian rose window, and crowned with a ten foot high iron statue of Our Lady of Lourdes. Inside the chapel stands a 22’ tall ‘miraculous staircase’ that spirals in two complete 360 degree circles with no central pole, nor apparent means of support. Remarkably, the mystery behind the construction—the unknown carpenter, the spectacular design, and even the origin of the wood—has served to sustain the chapel itself and even has familial roots in Beulah!
The condensed story begins just after the Mexican American war in 1848 when the area known as Nuevo Mexico was ceded to the United States. Founded in 1610, La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Assisi (aka: Santa Fe) was new territory for the newly appointed Bishop, a young French American from Cincinnati, Ohio named Fr. Jean Baptiste Lamy. However, many of the locals resented his appointment and moved south to Mexico leaving a void of both priests and educators. Bishop Lamy countered the exodus by sending out a request for help. An order from the Loretto Community in Kentucky were the first to respond, devoted to “educating the poor children of the frontier.” A tiny new order was formed, calling itself the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross, and its seven members headed to Santa Fe.
Armed with conviction and dressed in black habits, the sisters made their arduous 1,500 mile journey by boat up the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and then west by wagon. They are said to be some of the earliest women travelers on the Santa Fe Trail. En route, their superior, Mother Matilda contracted cholera and passed away in Independence, Missouri. A second strickened nun returned home to Kentucky to recover. The order of five arrived in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1852, and Sister Magdalen was appointed Superior. Within one year of their arrival, the sisters opened the Academy of Our Lady of Light, a boarding and day school, that was eventually renamed Loretto Academy.
Amidst construction on the Cathedral Basilica of Francis of Assisi, Lamy envisioned a smaller chapel to service the thriving Loretto Academy. The sisters took on fundraising efforts, which included donations, tuition monies and even personal inheritances to build the first Gothic building (complete with spires, buttresses and stained glass windows) west of the Mississippi, and patterned after Sainte Chapelle in Paris, France.
According to 1873 records kept by the nuns, the construction started that year led by Antoine Mouly–a French architect and stonecutter–with the help of his son Projectus and a long list of builders. The Loretto Chapel was completed in four years and blessed by Vicar-General Peter Eguillon on April 25, 1878.
According to the legend, upon completion of the chapel, the nuns realized there was no staircase to the choir loft. Apparently left to their own wits to solve the problem, they puzzled a staircase that would reach the 22-foot height without impacting the seating of the modest 25- by 50-foot interior. A ladder was not a feasible solution as the ascent and descent of women and girls in habits, choir smocks or dresses was undignified and dangerous.
Upon consulting with all the local carpenters, the nuns were told that it could not be done. So, the Sisters of Loretto prayed, specifically making a novena (9-day prayer) to St. Joseph the carpenter saint. Miraculously on the ninth day a ‘gray-haired stranger’ with a tool chest arrived on a donkey and said he could do it. Mother Magdalen gave her consent to the ‘private’ man who spent four to six months meticulously building the staircase, but curiously she never got his name.
When the ingeniously-designed staircase risers were completed—held together by simple wooden pegs, and primarily supported from an inner wood stringer so small it acts as a central pole—the carpenter vanished before receiving payment. Mother Magdalen searched for the man by visiting the nearby sawmill and putting an ad in the local paper, but the man never surfaced.
Thus the nuns embraced the builder as St. Joseph, owing to the spontaneous appearance, the sudden disappearance of the carpenter, no desire for pay, and the spectacular result of the staircase. Further evidence sided for the ethereal when 33 steps were counted, the same number of years Jesus Christ was said to have walked on the earth.
Fact of the matter, two master carpenters by the names Johannes Hadwiger and Francois-Jean ‘Frenchy’ Rochas have long been considered alongside the patron saint of carpentry.
Johannes Hadwiger was the father of local Beulah carpenter John L. Hadwiger (Sr.) and the grandfather of carpenter John E. Hadwiger (Jr.), both of Beulah and Pueblo, with kin still residing locally. These talented craftsman built fine reputations for building and maintaining many of Beulah’s early homes and cabins. Others in the family inherited the woodworking gene, and the family concludes “it’s as if woodwork is part of Hadwiger.”
Both Rochas and Hadwiger possessed the master carpentry skills required to build the staircase. The wood was soaked and bent in water to push beyond the usual linear boundaries. Plaster was integrated and finished to match the wood, leaving the flawless look.
Strangely, it took nine years to add the balustrades to safely ascend or descend the stairs, a feat seemingly more perilous than a ladder. The carpenter credited for this work is Phillip August Hesch.
In the July 1965 issue of Carpenter magazine, Johannes grandson Oscar E. Hadwiger of Pueblo, (woodworker and inventor of the first floor sander and John E.’s younger brother) was interviewed about a 15” model he made of the Loretto staircase, as well as his conviction that his grandfather had built the marvel 80 years prior. The replica “mixed-wood and varnish structure”—built by working 10 hours each day for three months—was exhibited at Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum. A 1970 article in the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph states “Oscar produced an invoice dated April 18, 1878 complete with a pencil drawing of the circular staircase.” The paper was found in a tool chest with a few simple tools including a metal jig that he thought may have produced the hundreds of wooden pegs. He also shared a letter dated Oct. 5 1965 from the Sisters of Loretto at Our Lady of Light stating he had no proof that his grandfather Johannes was the builder.
According to Oscar and the Hadwiger family legend, in 1870 Johannes’ eldest son John L. immigrated to the United States against the wishes of his father. Upon receiving word of John’s location in Colorado, the 52 year old “carpenter and stair builder” traveled to the United States in hopes of convincing his son to return home to Austria. It was during this visit that Johannes heard of the plight of the Sisters of Loretto and went to Santa Fe to help. Upon returning to Pueblo, he told his son that he had visited New Mexico and built some stairs in a chapel, but that he hadn’t finished, and had not taken payment for the effort. Johannes returned to Austria in 1879, passing away that same year.
In 2002, the mystery of the Loretto staircase was said to be solved when historian and author Mary J. Straw Cook named Rochas as the builder after she made several exciting finds which she expounded in her book Loretto: The Sisters and Their Santa Fe Chapel. Specifically, Cook uncovered a daybook entry indicating a payment to Rochas (“Paid for wood Mr Rochas, $150.00”), along with a letter to Mr. Quintus Monier who was in charge of building and construction of Lamy’s Santa Fe chapels; and an 1894 obituary of Rochas which stated, “he build <sic> the handsome stair-case in the Loretto chapel and at St. Vincent sanitarium.” In addition, Rochas’ toolchest was said to contain a wide variety of woodworking tools. Further, Cook contended the skilled Compagnon (a French organization of craftsmen and artisans) came to the United States specifically for the staircase task, although immigration records indicate he landed in Quebec, Canada first. Additional discrepancies require greater clarity in order to definitively identify the builder.
• The nuns declared the name of the builder was unknown and no payment was made for the staircase, eliminating the daybook entry as evidence.
• Further, the daybook entry of $150 in 1878 is equivalent to $4,500 today, an exceedingly high price to pay for the risers alone, as the balusters and railings were added later.
• The novena to St. Joseph took place upon the completion of the chapel in 1878; however, Rochas did not immigrate until 1881.
• The nuns describe the carpenter as ‘old’ and ‘gray’, but in 1878, Rochas was just 35 years old while Johannes Hadwiger was 53 years old.
• What happened to Hadwiger’s toolchest and the invoice with the sketch?
• Why didn’t Rochas or Hadwiger finish the stairs with balustrades?
Regardless of the answers, for as long the Loretto staircase stands in seeming defiance of gravity, it will serve, to both the devout and the curious, as a physical manifestation of the perseverance of faith and the beauty of divine inspiration. The miracle that the Sisters of Loretto had prayed for was fulfilled. v