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1878: Nine Days of Prayer At Loretto Chapel



The Loretto Chapel


In the early days of the American South West there was little in the way of religious education and schooling for most Native American tribes living in the area, or for the European settlers either, in cases. 

In the mid 1800's the South West could also be a rough and dangerous place. The 'Gunfight at the OK Corral' happened in 1881, to give one famous example.  So conflict resolution was a pretty rudimentary science there at this point in time.       

There were outlaws there as well as everyday people, all trying to start a new life on the frontier.  There were shootings and knifings, robbery and rape, rustling and rowdiness.  I'm sure that it wasn't so common or so horrible as a Hollywood Western might depict, but all of these things did happen there. One reason for this was that there was a shortage of the knowledge of Jesus in that corner of the land just then, and to such places, the Lord sends those who will go.

For the job of reforming a rough, tough place like that, you might expect the Lord to send a pretty rough, tough man.  But in accordance with God's habit of making everything he sends be completely ample for the task it is sent for, it was seven women who answered God's call.  

They were some of the Sisters of Loretto, a religious order in the U.S state of Kentucky. They came hoping to bring education and Christianity to the wild South West frontier. They weren't the first who made such treks to the South West, but the area was still very wild and untamed.

Cholera took hold of their group on the trip west.  It killed one of the Sisters, and made it necessary for a second Sister to return home sick.  It seems like God always wants his servants to be strengthened by the facing and overcoming of great adversity.  Maybe that is something that God knows is necessary, or maybe there is a spiritual war going on, and the enemy provides the adversity.  Or maybe it is so the servants of God can have a crown to wear one day because they weren't provided with smooth sailing, but they sailed in faith none the less.  Whatever the case, the remaining Sisters were not deterred. 

In 1852 they had started their trip to Santa Fe, (a city in what is now the State of New Mexico in the USA), and, soon after arriving, the funds were arranged to build the school they had intended, and a convent where they could live as they worked.  The happy Sisters named it the 'Our Lady of Light Academy'. But it was not until 21 years later, in 1873, that they were able to realize their dream of constructing a beautiful little chapel adjacent to the school.

Under the authority of the Catholic Arch Bishop of the time in that area - Jean Baptiste Lamy - the work was commisioned. The Architect, P. Mouly, was the same man who had supervised the building of the school 20 years earlier, and with a crew of skilled and able Mexican carpenters the chapel's construction progressed well.

The 'Our Lady of Light ' Chapel is considered quite beautiful - it was fashioned after the patern of a famous chapel in Paris called the Sainte Chapelle. It has European style stained glass windows, and many beautiful old world touches in its design. But when it was nearly finished (all but the stairs going up to the choir loft) tragedy struck.

The Architect had apparently been paying too much of the wrong sort of attention to a married woman in the area - at least in her husband's opinion. So, the husband shot him dead.

They laid him to rest, then addressed the problem of how to finish their church's construction. They needed only the stairs, but a problem was discovered: there was a flaw in the architectural drawings and plans. The stairs that were designed on the plans were far too large to be fit into the space that was available for them. Part of the structure would have to be torn down and rebuilt to accomodate a normal sized set of stairs.  

The Sisters, who had waited for so long to see their chapel completed, could not bear the thought of doing that.

They consulted carpenter after carpenter, but though men came out and sized up the situation, none found a way to fit an adequate set of stairs into such a tight area. A simple ladder could have been used, but it seemed inappropriate to the Sisters, who wore dresses, to use a ladder to ascend to the choir loft.

They, being women of God and believers in the power of prayer to Jesus, decided to pray that God would send them a carpenter who could accomplish this task within the space that was available. They decided to pray a Novena (a nine day continued prayer sometimes undertaken by Catholics for a special purpose) to St. Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus and to the Catholics, the Patron Saint of Carpenters.  They resolved to dedicate nine days of focused prayer and meditation to the problem, asking that the Lord provide them with an answer to their situation.

The days passed, and the Sisters prayed with faith and dedication. Yet on the eighth day, the problem still remained. So their prayer continued.

On the ninth day, a visitor arrived. He did not appear to be too impressive. He was an old man, an old man who came to them on a mule. He would like to do some work, he said, for some food.

The Sisters could not have held out too much excitement on seeing who it was that had come to their door - an old man wishing to work for food - but they could not help but mention that they were facing a carpentering problem.  

The old man was encouraged to hear this, because, as he told them, he was a carpenter. And it was true, for he had a container with him in which he had three tools, according to the account that survives today. He had a hammer, a saw, and a T-square.

The old man looked at the area where the stairs needed to be, and then he told them that in exchange for food and lodging, he would be willing to build the staircase that they needed.

Because they had prayed, and because it was to Jesus, and because the man said he could do what the other carpenters had told them could not be done in so small a space, they had faith and accepted his offer.

He soon enough told them that he would need some tubs of water to soak wood in. They provided him with these. He doesn't seemed to have needed anything too much else from them, though certainly they must have provided the wood if it was not already on hand.  Not much else is known or remembered of the project or the man.  Some say that the work took about 3 months, then one day the old man was done.

He called the Nuns together to show it to them, and simply told them "You have your staircase." it is said.  Then he soon left without fanfare, and asked for no pay. No one really knows who he was. When the Sisters enquired in town, hoping to invite him to a celebration because of the completed construction, no one remembered the man spending time in town.


The Loretto Staircase

Who was he? That has become a topic of research for the curious in these intervening years.  There are some who think they have figured it out, but the theories vary, and it may just remain a mystery.

What the sisters didn't seem to be aware of initially is that this incredibly beautiful spiral staircase - so graceful and elegant, so strong and sturdy - was to become a puzzle that would last for a century and a half and still counting.

It did it's job quite well and safely, but how it managed to support the weight was quite an unknown. It looks unsupported - or perhaps it's better to say that it supports itself. But in a way that was strange and unfamiliar to all who came to look at it. Spiral staircases were common enough, but this one has no central support.

There is no post running from floor to ceiling in the center of the spiral to bear the weight of the structure itself or of those who go up and down the stairs. In fact, when the old man left, it did not even have a bannister to hold onto with your hand as you climbed or descended the stairs, which frightened the Sisters quite a lot.

The 22 feet tall stairs make two full 360 degree spirals and utilize 33 steps (which as chance would have it is the commonly believed age of Jesus at the time of his cricifixion.) There is not a screw or a nail to be found in the structure, it is said. Only wooden pegs. And the under side of the stairs are cased in their full width with a beautifully finished smoothly spiralling sheet of nicely grained and polished wood as well.  Articles that I read say that the woods used are not native to New Mexico.  In short, it took some very specialized knowledge and some amazing craftsmanship to build this staircase.    

You can find some pretty good quality photos of these stairs if you do a simple search of the internet.

A bannister - quite fine and a nice match with the stairs - was added to the staircase by a local carpenter so that the Sisters felt safer using them. But when first built, it was just this strange set of steps spiralling upward, built by a mysterious carpenter in some unknown way.

As time has gone by and they have become a little bit famous, an ever growing list of carpenters and architects have looked at the stairs and pronounced them unique.  Scale models have been built to experiment with the way that the stairs support themselves.  The concept works.  But for these stairs to have been built where they were and when they were, by someone that showed up on the 9th day of a nine day novena of prayer for that very couldn't seem more from God than if they had been lowered down from heaven!

Whatever else they are or are not, these stairs are certainly a testament to what can happen when Christian women rely with faith upon Jesus and pray for His help with what they cannot find a way to do themselves. The mysterious and very special stairs at the Chapel of Our Lady of Light stand as a beautiful answered prayer in a world that prays too little.

©2017 Daniel Curry & 'Deeds of God' Website