The Loretto Chapel, also known as Our Lady of Light, is well known for its “miraculous staircase,” but as I looked into its history in more detail, I noticed quite a few miracles that we can thank for its existence.
The Loretto Chapel ranks on a par with the St. Francis Cathedral as one of the City Different’s most beautiful structures steeped in Santa Fe history. French Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy was appointed the Santa Fe territory in 1850. He made the arduous journey from Paris to Santa Fe and was confronted by considerable resistance from the incumbent clergy in the area.
His efforts to bring Catholicism to the residents included enticing teachers, priests, nuns and architects to Santa Fe at a time when cross-country and global travel was at its most treacherous. He appealed to many.
The Kentucky-based Sisters of Loretto Institute was among the first to respond to Lamy’s pleas for help. In 1852, seven brave Sisters undertook the perilous journey to New Mexico from Kentucky. The many dangers of covered wagon travel included Indian country, cholera, and bad weather. It is said that one Sister died of cholera, and one was so ill she had to return home.
The remaining five Sisters completed the journey to arrive that same year. In 1853, the first school buildings were constructed and later that year, they opened the doors of the Loretto Academy to a handful of students.
Over the years, more Sisters arrived and The Academy grew to three hundred students before closing in the late 1960s.
Another of Bishop Lamy’s dreams was to build a cathedral in Santa Fe. He brought French architect Antoine Mouly and son Projectus all the way from France in 1870 to build what is now known as the St. Francis Cathedral.
During the Cathedral’s construction, Lamy suggested the Loretto Sisters take the opportunity to build a Chapel for the Academy. The cost of construction would be $30,000 (approximately $600,000 today). The Sisters persevered and managed to gather the funds by adding their personal inheritances to the donations the community contributed. The Chapel was built between the two academy buildings.
The design of the Loretto is based on Lamy’s favorite chapel in Paris, that of King Louis IX’s Sainte Chapelle. Having helped renovate Sainte Chapelle in the early 1800s, Mouly was able to bring the Gothic Revival style to the Loretto, making it the first of its kind to be built west of the Mississippi. With its vaulted ceilings and towering stone arches, it was a dramatic contrast to the soft curves of indigenous adobe churches.
The various materials used were brought from near and far. The beautiful stained-glass for the windows came all the way from Paris, enduring ocean, paddle-boat and covered wagon transport. (No bubble wrap in those days!) Construction began in 1873 and took five years to complete. At some point between 1877 and 1881, the infamous staircase was built by a mysterious stranger. Curiously, the choir loft had been built twenty-two feet above the main floor without any means of access, other than perhaps a shaky stepladder. After consultations with numerous carpenters, the bad news was that there would be no way for the Sisters to have a staircase built that wouldn’t impose on the limited seating area in the chapel.
The Sisters didn’t give up. They devoted a novena (nine days of prayer) to St. Joseph (the Patron Saint of carpenters). On the last day of prayer, a carpenter arrived with a donkey and a small toolbox looking for work. With a few rudimentary tools, he worked for six months to create a spectacular work of art that served both the purpose of elevation for the choir and minimal intrusion on the lower seating area. He then promptly vanished from Santa Fe and without payment! The sisters tried to find him to thank him, but despite their efforts, he was never seen again.
Even though spiral staircases are no longer a novelty, I can’t help staring at this one for its beautiful qualities that no modern staircase I’ve seen can compete with. Originally without a railing, the stairs spin in a compact nautilus curve up twenty-two feet to the choir loft. Without the railing, I wouldn’t have wanted to be in the choir; vertigo is the first thing that leaps to mind. To this day, mysteries surround the staircase, from who the carpenter was, to the physics of how two complete 360-degree turns are held together with only wooden pegs, not nails or glue, and no visible means of support. And the wood used is apparently extinct. The mysteries have been a source of intrigue for many media sources, among them “Unsolved Mysteries,” “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not,” “National Geographic,” and a 1998 television movie starring Barbara Hershey called “The Staircase.”
By 1968, the Academy had ceased to exist, and the Chapel was deconsecrated as a formal place of worship. The entire complex of Academy buildings, Chapel included, was put up for sale. By 1971, they had sat essentially abandoned and in disrepair for over three years. The future was looking bleak for this once-thriving chapel. A city permit was issued for the demolition of the academy buildings.
Again, just in time, and as if answering a prayer, in 1971 a buyer arrived. This time we know their name, and I’m sure the Kirkpatrick family knows how grateful we are to them. They persevered through a lengthy purchase process that took upwards of a year, to finally buy the buildings.
The Kirkpatricks invested in the renovation of the Chapel, and it has been a family-run museum and event space ever since. The Academy buildings were demolished and The Inn and Spa at Loretto now occupies the majority of the rest of the city block. There is a garden and Luminaria Restaurant’s patio where one of the Academy buildings once stood.
Since its purchase in the early 70s, the Chapel has become a prominent cornerstone in the community. Each year, Loretto Chapel welcomes hundreds of weddings, special events, and performances.
For over 30 years, one of the most popular events is the Santa Fe Pro Musica Baroque Christmas Concert Series held each year during Christmas week. The large thirty-piece orchestra is trimmed to an eight or nine-piece ensemble for this event. The intimate setting and resounding acoustics make for a sweet, Christmas sound as they perform such masters as Handel, Molter, Purcell and traditional Carols. (Singing along is encouraged.) The Baroque Christmas Series has become a Holiday tradition for many locals and travelers.
Baroque Christmas runs December 20th through December 24th at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. each evening. The Santa Fe Pro Musica Orchestra performs at many locations around Santa Fe from mid-September to mid-April. If you miss Baroque Christmas, there’s also the Baroque Holy Week Concert Series in March, 28th, 29th at 7.30 p.m and 30th at 6 p.m. Tickets sell out in advance, so contact them at (505) 988-4640 to buy yours.
The Kirkpatrick family continue to oversee and manage the Chapel museum and event space, preserving its beauty and mystery for all to visit for a mere $3 donation. It is open daily with the exception of Christmas Day and perhaps for a few hours for a wedding or event.
The Chapel is also a point of origin for one of the best, longest-running tour companies in Santa Fe, the Loretto Line Tours. They offer educational and fun open tram tours of the historic downtown area, including Museum Hill. Tours run seasonally from around mid-March to late October depending on weather.
After researching the people and the stories behind the Chapel, and its surrounding buildings that we lost, I appreciate the Loretto even more. Not only for its famous “miracles,” but for the little-known ones too, and how it stands as testament to the determination of our predecessors, the extreme adverse conditions they encountered, their monumental undertakings, and the enduring beauty they left behind.
For more information on The Loretto Chapel go to: http://santafeselection.com/museums/loretto-chapel
For more information on The Loretto Line Tours go to: http://santafeselection.com/day-trips-activities/loretto-line-tours
For more information on Santa Fe Pro Musica go to: http://santafeselection.com/entertainment/santa-fe-pro-musica