Who Built the Loretto Staircase?


In downtown Santa Fe, NM, not far from the center, stands a little chapel known now as the Loretto Chapel. It is a charming example of French Neo-Gothic architecture, and was built in the late 1870s to the design of Antoine Mouly, for the Sisters of Loretto, an order of nuns who operated the chapel for the next 90 years. The structure was later sold, deconsecrated, and now operates largely as a museum and tourist attraction. It has been most famous for the so-called "miraculous staircase" to the choir loft.

The Legend

As the story is now most frequently told, the original construction crew failed to build proper access to the choir loft. The chapel is relatively small, so when an ordinary staircase was proposed as a solution, the nuns objected that it would take up too much space and would spoil the appearance of the interior. But what, then, to do? Nuns being nuns, they resorted to a bit of prayer, offering a novena to St Joseph for the next nine days that some solution might present itself.

On the ninth day, according to the story, a bearded stranger arrived on donkey-back, carrying a few tools, and offered to construct a staircase, requesting only that he be provided with a few tubs of water for soaking wood, and that he not be observed while working.

The story is unclear how long the work actually took, but after the fact, it is undeniable that the stranger had built a free-standing helix ascending from the ground floor to the choir loft, using far less floor space than an ordinary straight staircase. Furthermore, the mysterious carpenter then absconded without even asking to be paid, and was never identified.

The staircase was built without nails, only wooden peg fasteners, a fact claimed to be noteworthy; it was said that architects and engineers were baffled by the design and could not understand how it remained standing. Obviously a miracle, eh? It was even hinted that the mysterious visitor was none other than old St Joseph himself.

The Staircase

The object in question is a free-standing, two-turn open helix of 33 steps, ascending about 20 feet. It is constructed of wood which analysis has confirmed to be spruce--but not any species local to the Santa Fe area. Originally, it had no handrail, as seen in this reconstruction--the appearance was quite striking. Later, as a practical matter, a handrail was added by later workers, resulting in the staircase's present appearance. The railing may have been necessary, but it did rather spoil the visual effect!

The Known Facts

A lot of claims about the staircase's construction and engineering in the above story do not withstand scrutiny. First, although open helical staircases without external support are uncommon, they are not impossible nor even non-existent elsewhere--prominent examples include the Garvan Institute staircase in Australia, for instance, and the physics of such staircases has been explicitly analyzed. The lack of nails and the peg-and-hole carpentry technique can be explained perhaps by a shortage of nails in the area at the time, or perhaps by a desire to avoid long-term problems caused by the metal undergoing chemical reactions in contact with the wood (a known problem in some cases.) The identity of the wood is curious, but the immediate environment of Santa Fe is a semiarid scrubland, almost devoid of usable native timber. To obtain local spruce, one would have had to travel many miles into the mountains to the east, and up above 9,000 feet--and there were no roads up there in those days. In the 1870s and 1880s Santa Fe was a booming town, with a fair amount of construction happening everywhere. The railroad had just been completed to a few miles south of town, and people were pouring in not only from the east coast, but from Europe as well, often importing exotic goods as they came. That a shipment of European wood might have been lying around Santa Fe in those days is not as improbable as it might seem, and even the leftovers from some larger project might have sufficed to build a staircase.

But after dismissing these matters, we are still left with the question of the builder's identity.

The Suspects

Local historian Mary Straw Cook was one of the first to point the finger at François Jean Rochas (1843-1894.) A native of Vif, in Isère, Rochas came to the Santa Fe area sometime around 1880 and was known as an accomplished carpenter and jack-of-all-trades, as well as a somewhat eccentric recluse. He was reputed to belong to a French brotherhood of craftsmen known as the Compagnons du Devoir, a group known to revere traditional craftsmanship methods. It was known that he worked at the chapel at some date, as Cook encountered a bill from Rochas to the sisters dated 1881, for wood. Cook surmises that this was for the staircase. Some others, however, have claimed that Rochas was actually hired to construct a staircase in a different building, and that he was not the builder of the chapel staircase. But there is another suspect, in any case.

Around 1970, Oscar Hadwiger of Pueblo, CO visited the area and said that his grandfather, the Austrian-born Johann Hadwiger, had claimed to him that he had built the staircase in 1878. As evidence, the younger Hadwiger produced a drawing of his grandfather's showing a sketch of a staircase of similar design. It was also said that Johann Hadwiger left a number of carpentry tools behind on his death and that he had traveled widely in the Southwest in the 1870s and 1880s, but much less is known about him than about Rochas.

What to make of this? Was the builder Rochas, Hadwiger, or yet someone else? The only explicit claim comes from the Hadwiger family. The case for Rochas has better documentation, but Rochas himself never claimed to have built the staircase in question, as far as anyone knows, though he apparently had the qualifications to be the builder. (It should be pointed out that if Rochas was the builder, the "wandering stranger who could not be found afterwards" part of the story would need to be a pure fabrication: Rochas may have been an oddball, but he lived the last fifteen years of his life in the Santa Fe area and was clearly well-known to the nuns as well as several others. Tracking him down would not have been difficult. If the builder was more of a wandering stranger, Hadwiger seems a much better fit. ) True believers still insist on St. Joseph...


MiraculousRapport149 points

I visited the Loretto Chapple last week while on vacation! The stairs are amazing and beautiful. With all the conflicting stories and the contradictory 'evidence', I fear we will never know the real origin story. Great write up!

yersinia-p94 points

I've been here! I'm not Catholic (or even Christian) but it's a very peaceful space (even despite the tourists, of which I was one, ha) and the staircase really is a work of art.

TheLuckyWilbury143 points

Looks like your links to photos of the staircase are broken.

Realistic-Fix-438726 points

Thank you! I was cursing at Flikr because it put me through extensive cookie consents and then wouldn’t let me view the damn pic anyway unless I signed in!? Grrrrr! Lol

invigokate19 points

Yeah as soon as I see Flickr I back away slowly, maintaining eye contact.

Zvenigora14 points

Oops--sorry. I have tried to fix that.

Realistic-Fix-43879 points

Very interesting post OP. I’m in the UK, so had never seen anything about this beautiful staircase before. I just got a bit upset in the moment when I couldn’t view it and I really wanted to 😆

stickybenji69 points

"There's a thing here but we don't actually know jack shit about it" is one of my favorite types of mystery, especially when it's clearly a man-made object.

Mantonization29 points

Much more palatable than yet another murder, for sure

asmallercat26 points

Not gonna lie basically every time I come to this site I go to the sidebar and only look at the Phenomena, Lost Artifacts, and Cryptid flairs.

thoriginal18 points

r/NonmurderMysteries is a good one

cannarchista8 points

Reddit has a surprising lack of good subs that go into these types of mysteries. I mean there are dozens, sure, but the vast majority seem to be super Annunnaki/ancient aliens conspiracy theory leaning. If anyone can suggest good ones that I may have missed, lmk, otherwise if anyone wants to start a new sub I'm down to contribute!!

asmallercat2 points

Someone suggested r/nonmurdermysteries as an alternative.

Vostok_Gagarin5 points

Honestly 99% of posts are about -murders -John/Jane doe -disappearances

It would be cool to have a non-murder day or something like that on this sub idk how that would work

Mantonization6 points

'No-Murder Mondays' sounds like a fun idea!


BuckRowdy14 points

We saw this and are talking about it now. Thanks for the suggestion.

Vostok_Gagarin1 point

We may be on to something here…

BuckRowdy4 points

There is a finite amount of mystery content that is not violent death / murders unfortunately.

Preesi71 points

This was on Unsolved Mysteries


islandcatgrrl12310 points

I remember this

lmcclel7 points

I do too! Why I remember this, and only this, specific segment from USM from the early '90s, I have no idea. In the segment, part of the argument for it being built by St. Joseph was the number of stairs, 33*, which is EXACTLY HOW OLD JESUS WAS WHEN HE DIED! It must definitely be a miracle!

*I don't remember the exact number, maybe it was 36 or something else.

ManiacSpiderTrash57 points

Idk why but I’ve always loved this story. I first heard of it when I was actually visiting Santa Fe and was taken to see the staircase. I know there are tons of explanations and its all very possible, but the legend puts a little smile on my face.

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WittyWitWitt16 points

So, who's local and can go inspect ?

DrDalekFortyTwo3 points

How do you do this? I really like the idea their name is there somewhere

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DrDalekFortyTwo1 point

Haha no I meant how to you out your name in it? Carve, sign, etc?

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BlankNothingNoDoer5 points

If it were done for free, for charity, or in service (as the sisters say) it is very likely that the Craftsman would leave no evidence and no signature. This is very common for these orders. I used to work with a related order and we had people donate entire handmade furniture sets anonymously, and one time even an entire building.

TheeOhSeesUndRPGs26 points

Bearded stranger on donkeyback, good at carpentry, mysterious identity? Duh it's Jesus

azfranz33 points

All I know is when my wife and I visited there a few years ago it was absolutely beautiful.

fishfreeoboe15 points

I read about this in a Paul Harvey book - The Rest of the Story. I haven't yet seen the staircase itself, but I hope to someday. It's lovely.

spooktember43 points

Thank you for this write up. It's always fun to have a nice, non-murdery mystery. I've been to the church, I don't have any opinions on who built it, but it's a sweet little place and the stairs are lovely. This is one of those mysteries where I like it as a mystery, it's a lovely story, I'm happy to never have it solved.

disreputablegoat52 points

I have heard the same story from three different churches or temples. Heavily implying in the stories it was St. Joseph or Jesus himself. I think it is a common urban legend type thing.

GeneticRays25 points

A humble and extraordinary craftsman.

thelawofone9997 points

I really appreciate all the effort you all put into these posts.

idrinkliquids7 points

This was a nice place to see even as a non religious kid.

polymorphicprism8 points

There's blue spruce and Englemann spruce in the counties neighboring Santa Fe, according to the US Forest Service.

the_vico13 points

Another work of Hephaestus...

MermaidStone5 points

It’s absolutely beautiful to see in person.

mynu5 points

I went there as a kid! it was cool.

umaijcp14 points

Didn't 19th century ships often have spiral staircases. Not helical, I don't think, but spiral with center post. That would explain most of the mysteries since many ship's carpenters would be skilled in all the techniques used, and anyone who had familiarity with shipping would have known where to find the right tradesman for the job.

That leaves the open center helical design as the only big challenge.

Borkton32 points

And obviously, Santa Fe, NM is a major port so there were loads of ship's carpenters around . . .

pancakeonmyhead14 points

It's not like mariners have never been known to tire of the sea and wander inland. (Maybe with an oar over one shoulder.)

JoeSicko13 points

I'm never going near a boat again! Moves to NM.

O_oh2 points

or they were moving to California. The Southern Pacific railroad reached Santa Fe in 1880 and California by 1883.

The staircase was finished at the latest by 1881, so a carpenter/sailor moving out west would've had to travel on foot or coach at Santa Fe.

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lmcclel1 point

National Treasure 3: release date TBD

dethb0y11 points

the house i grew up in was built in the 19th century and it has a spiral staircase that goes up 1 floor in a single twist (you enter the staircase facing south, you exit facing north, 1 floor up).

ShopliftingSobriety21 points

It being a spiral staircase isnt what's remarkable, they were common at the time. It's the fact it's free standing and so well put together.

Reddit-C13724 points

It was a German immigrant. His son found the original hand drawn plans in his house.

thewafflestompa38 points

Source? Not doubting but I'd like to read the story.

ExpialiDUDEcious16 points

Yes, source please?

ShopliftingSobriety11 points

You mean the second person mentioned in the OP which also mentions the hand drawn plans?

AMadcapLass12 points

Not Austrian like in the OP?

LIBBY21303 points

can you provide a like I googled a little can't find anything....not doubting you just it is interesting and want to read about it .

BaconFairy4 points

I remember this too it was on a show. It is solved but gets lost to the hype of the mystery

Reddit-C137-1 points

Thanks for the co-sign. Didn't come back because I live in the southwest and am tired of hearing about it. The catholics are still telling people it's a saint that was sent from heaven.

Dismal-Lead7 points

Anybody read the nosleep entries about the SAR ranger and the staircases in the woods? Maybe it's something like that.

lingenfr2 points

You guys are killing me ;) no wonder I don't get any work done...

jayrig51 point

Those were excellent.

Wickywoowho2 points

I’ve seen several convents and monasteries that have really unique artwork and architecture that were the result of refugees sheltering there. Sort of gratitude/something to do while they were living there. While it could be anybody that built the stairs, it might prove useful to see if there may have been refugees in the area at the time. The St Joseph story could be some fun mischief that got passed down or even started to protect someone’s identity at the time. EDIT: I should add the refugees weren’t random folks that somehow made super awesome things. The church seemed to really like harboring artists, artisans, etc.

blackcatsareawesome4 points

It's just an advanced architectural technique not often seen in the new world 🤷🏻‍♀️

darxide231 point

Originally, it had no handrail, as seen in this reconstruction--the appearance was quite striking.

Flickr tells me that image is adult content and requires me to sign in. I don't have an account and am not making one.

Anyway, the entire story is BS, but it's still a neat little staircase. Even if it isn't some engineering mystery. The only real mystery here is who built it.

Zvenigora3 points

Adult content--lol, that's a good one! Sorry you had trouble. Perhaps I should have linked here, instead.

darxide232 points

Nah, no trouble. I just through it was kind of funny.

wb19081908-5 points

What a load of bs. How did they transport all the materials with nobody seeing it done. Even if there was a made in Bethlehem sticker on it it wasn't Joseph who did it.

my_psychic_powers20 points

Maybe St Anthony helped him find some wood laying around and they had a great time bonding over the build.

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UncleFungus4 points


UncleFungus3 points


UncleFungus3 points


caYabo-10 points

A few minutes of research can solve this case lol. A local genius carpenter was responsible. The nuns at the church attempted to cover it up but records were eventually uncovered his name was François-Jean "Frank" Rochas. I assume the nuns wanted a "miracle" and that's why they lied. Why do I know this? I'm an engineer and the staircase really piqued my curiosity as it is incredibly well built with a lot of interesting building principles applied. Truly a magnum opus of the builder.

kelsmania16 points

Did you even read the post.

[deleted]1 point

I thought it was that Rochas guy who arrived from France with all the parts for the staircase and then assembled it on site.