New Mexico’s stairway to the stars

Published 4:14 pm Thursday, January 19, 2012

The so-called mystery staircase in the Loretto Chapel here reminds me of nothing so much as a big, coiled spring, a Slinky toy falling from ceiling to floor. Or maybe the shelves that young boys of the 1930s used to make in shop called “Stairways to the Stars.”

The stairs make two, 360-degree turns and for a great story. Tourists and pilgrims come every day to visit and gawk.

It is told that in 1877, a mysterious and shaggy carpenter rode up on a donkey with a chest of simple tools and did what others said could not be done.  He built a spiral stairway in the newly constructed Gothic chapel, an answer to the nuns’ prayers to St. Joseph.

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The Sisters of Loretto said the ingenious laborer disappeared before being paid, and some believe it was St. Joseph himself who came to the rescue of the nuns.

The original architect died before explaining his plans for a stairwell to the choir loft. There wasn’t room for a conventional one, creating an architectural emergency with a ladder the only obvious alternative. But the “miracle” fixed things.

Later and less saintly research shows the stairs may have been built by a French carpenter named Francois-Jean “Frenchy” Rochas. Rochas was murdered and never publicly took a bow, but at least one newspaper obituary gave him credit for the staircase.

Frenchy or St. Joseph, doesn’t really matter what story you buy. Either way or another altogether, the staircase is worth a look-see. The chapel is a sort-of miniature of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, and the first Gothic structure west of the Mississippi.

I can never get over how beautiful Santa Fe is, no accident considering the strict legal covenants for building only adobe-style and painting in city-approved earth tones. In this case, zealous planning works.  You can’t argue with the look of the place.

Throw in some romance — mystery stairs and hanging red peppers and Indians under the portal at the Palace of the Governors selling turquoise and silver — and you have the perfect place to enjoy Christmas.

Farolitos — candles stuck in sand inside paper bags — make simply beautiful and beautifully simple decorations, but their modern cousins, the “electro-litos” used by many commercial establishments, now are the subject of great debate, Santa Fe style. Purists miss the flicker.

I took a New Orleans friend to Santa Fe just before Christmas, and he was a little puzzled, if not put off, by the uniformity of the town. It “looks a little Disney,” he said.

Certainly it’s no New Orleans, where anything goes aesthetically or otherwise. It would take calling in the National Guard to codify that free-wheeling city’s beauty.

Somehow, though, here so close to the bluest of skies, you don’t need as much color and adornment.

All you need is a presumed miracle or two to make the season merry and wind your way to the stars.

(To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit