You may know that I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. My family moved there when I was eight years old. I have a distinct memory of my dear father telling us that we would see cowboys and Indians when we arrived there. We had television back then. (I’m not that old, thank you very much!) Ahem.... I watched Saturday afternoon westerns like every other little kid in America. The Cisco Kid, Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger and Tonto were weekly fare. And, if that weren’t sufficient, Princess Summerfall Winterspring appeared on Howdy Doody. So I knew all about my cowboys and Indians.
What does all this have to do with the Miraculous Staircase? Almost nothing except to tell you how gullible I was as a child. (My dear husband contends that I still am.) So, what of it? I’m a fiction writer. I can be gullible and it looks like nothing more than a part of the persona.
In 1852, the sisters arrived in Santa Fe, and opened the Academy of Our Lady of Light (Loretto) in 1853. Despite smallpox, tuberculosis, leaky mud roofs and even a brush with rowdy Confederate Texans during the Civil War, their school flourished. Through tuition for the girls’ schooling, donations and from the sisters’ own inheritances from their families, they built their school and chapel. Bishop Lamy brought architect Antoine Mouly and his son from Paris to Santa Fe to design and build, not only St. Francis Cathedral, but also to build the Loretto School and chapel. Monsieur Mouly set his exquisite chapel, resembling King Louis IX’s Sainte-Chappelle in Paris, at the end of the Santa Fe Trail.
Instead, to find a different solution, the nuns decided that their only recourse was to pray. They made a Novena to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters. On the ninth and final day of prayer, a scruffy, gray-headed stranger appeared at the door looking for work. With him he brought a donkey and a toolbox full of tools. The man offered to build the necessary staircase, but he required two things in return. Mother Magdalene, the superior, was never to reveal the name of the carpenter and he wanted to be left in seclusion while he worked. (It’s an interesting fact that, even upon her deathbed, the mother superior refused to divulge the carpenter’s identity.)
His work was completed quickly, according to the sisters’ reports. Several of them cracked the chapel door open and watched him, but nobody ever spoke with the man and nobody ever disturbed his work. He used a saw, a T-square and a hammer, but no other tools. He worked continuously and, when he was finished, he sought out Mother Magdalene to approve his work. During the sisters’ excitement of viewing their new marvel, the carpenter disappeared—and never sent them a bill.
The Sisters of Loretto must have beamed with pride when they recalled that Saint Joseph answered their prayers and lovingly came himself to build their precious jewel.