A chapel located in Santa Fe, New Mexico holds a significant mystery about a staircase. What mystery could be tied to a staircase? Well, there are a couple unanswered questions about the Loretto Staircase, but lets start at the beginning.
When the Loretto Chapel was finished in 1878, there was no way to access the choir loft. Several carpenters were called in to address the problem, but they all said that the only way to access the loft would be by ladder. They concluded that a staircase would take up too much space in the small chapel. The Sisters of the Chapel prayed to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters, for an answer and on the ninth and final day of prayer, they got one. An unknown man showed up at the Chapel with a donkey and toolbox looking for work. Months later, the elegant staircase was completed and the carpenter disappeared without pay or thanks. The Sisters tried very hard to find this man, even put an ad in the local newspaper, but never found a trace of him. They concluded that it must have been St. Joseph himself who answered their prayers. The staircase has two 360 degree turns and wooden pegs instead of nails.
Some basic questions that surround this legend are: who was the mysterious carpenter, what kind of wood was used, and how does it stand without any visible support.
At this point I don't think there is a definite way of knowing how the St. Joseph was identified as the mysterious carpenter. Some believe that the Sisters may have used it as an explanation for their students. However, a woman named Tamar Stieber wrote an article for a New Mexico magazine in January 2000 that revealed the true identity of the carpenter. It is believed that Francois-Jean "Frenchy" Rochas, an expert worker in wood, was the one who built the miraculous staircase. The credit for the discovery goes to an amateur historian named Mary Jean Cook who was able to debunk the legend after finding Rochas obituary.
The wood used for the staircase is possibly foreign to the United States. Some thought the wood was so rare that they began to call it Loretto wood. Others think that the wood at one time did exist but not is extinct. After it had been tested, it is now believed to be a type of Spruce.
The structure of the staircase has attracted many questions as well, the main one being about safety. When it was first built, the staircase didn't have a railing and many were afraid to attempt to walk on it. They climbed the stairs on hands and knees. Ten years after it was built, an artisan named Phillip August Hesch added a railing. Many can't believe how it is still standing, seeing that it doesn't have a center support. Although, a wood technologist observes, "the staircase does have a central support." He observes that of the two wood stringers (or spiral structural members) the inner one is of such small radius that it "functions as an almost solid pole". Another possibly support is an iron brace or bracket that stabilizes the staircase by rigidly connecting the outer stringer to one of the columns that support the loft. Whether it has a center support or not, it has been deemed unstable and closed off to the public since the mid-1970s.
I don't believe that the Loretto Staircase can be considered an actual "miracle", but I think Archbishop Michael Sheehan did say it best: "It will always be referred to as a miraculous staircase. It was an extraordinary piece to have been done in its time."
Sources: The Loretto Chapel website, Skeptical Inquirer (1998 and 2000)