One of my favorite pieces of folklore from New Mexico is the story of this elegant spiral staircase inside Loretto Chapel in the very old and very haunted city of Santa Fe, New Mexico. At first glance, it seems completely normal and breathtakingly beautiful. It seems to curl up like a plume of smoke into the heavens. You’d never know that it’s existence is a 140-year-old unsolved mystery to some, and a divine miracle to others.
Loretto was the first Gothic cathedral built west of the Mississippi River in 1878. At that time, Santa Fe had been an established city for 268 years already. This was by no means the first church to be built in what was then still New Mexico Territory, a more recent addition to the United States after being forcibly taken from Mexico. But it seems likely that a Gothic church would be foreign to people who had been building in the Spanish architectural tradition for nearly 300 years.
So as it turned out, the interior of Loretto Chapel was poorly planned, and after its completion, there wasn’t room for a staircase to the choir loft. The desperate nuns pleaded with St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters, to help them figure out a solution.
Along came a man, giving no name, bearing only tools and a donkey and a desire to help. He built this strange curving staircase with no nails and no support structure with 33 steps and two 360-degree turns. He built it, finished it, and then he left without payment or thanks. Some believe the man was St. Joseph himself.
Today, the design is still mysterious and baffling. The staircase has been featured on the TV show “Unsolved Mysteries.” Loretto Chapel can still be visited today, although walking up its winding steps is not allowed.