The Mysterious Miracle Staircase of Loretto

By Garrett Fogerlie

I received this in an email. It is a short slide show entitled, "The Mysterious Staircase." So with my curiosity peaked, I decided to take a look at this evidence, nay, extraordinary evidence since extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. So here is what I found.

The “mysterious miracle Staircase” of Loretto is a right-handed 720 degree helical staircase 22 feet in height. The claim that, “all the architects, engineers and scientists say that they cannot understand how this staircase can balance without any central support,” is unfounded and blatantly false. For the moment let’s ignore the fact that you can see the obvious lateral support connecting the staircase’s outer stringer to a column,

and the possibility of it being supported both here and here

but like I said, lets ignore these for the moment. Spiral staircases do not need a central support, called a newel. The inner stringer, because of its tight radius, functions as a central support. In the same way a big strong spring in your vehicle’s suspension can support a very heavy load this staircase, or any staircase that doesn’t have a newel, can support a good deal before a structural failure.

In fact the helix is a very strong structural model and can be observed in a lot of architecture, not to mention the molecular makeup of crystals and diamonds.

Before returning to the staircase, I want to make a few points. If the staircase was made with a small steal center support it wouldn’t need to even touch the bottom floor because an incredible thin amount of steal (like string) can withstand a large force stretching or pulling its ends apart (exactly how the spokes on a bicycle wheel work, the spokes are being stretched, not compressed.) Now obviously this staircase has no steal (and most likely no nails since dowels were commonly used) but wood unlike steal or string (but similar to concrete), can withstand a large amount of pressure pushing its ends together, compressive force.

So back to the “mysterious miracle Staircase,” it is supported on the ground by both its outer and inner stringer (obviously) and where it connects to the second level, also by both its outer and inner stringer. Since it is a helical shape, it may appear somewhat unsupported but it is in fact supported almost exactly the same as a palm tree is. (Especially when you consider that all the ‘strength’ in a tree comes from, on an incredibly small level, molecular bonding and DNA and other proteins. Some of which take the helical shape.) In the real world, we don’t see a whole lot of helical examples in nature and the ones we do see don’t seem that strong, however some bamboo spirals as it grows; and in the same manner as the staircase, it can withstand a large amount of force.

In lieu of using nails, the staircase is held together with dowels or wooden pegs, a technique still used by woodworkers today. Far from weakening a structure, the use of wooden pegs can actually strengthen critical joints because, unlike iron nails or screws, the pegs expand and contract under varying weather conditions at the same rate as the surrounding wood.

While to some it may seem like nonlinear force displacement, but it isn’t. And as for the staircase that defies science, it doesn’t. It has several different means of support, and it is in no way unique. When it comes down to the facts, it was created by men and when you compare the way it works to the way a single transistor does, it becomes quite clear that this “miracle staircase” is nothing more than a glorified latter.

As for the carpenter not being know or the even more obsurd idea that he was St. Joseph come back from the dead, a quick search turns up a 1895 death notice in the newspaper, "The New Mexican" which explicitly names Francois-Jean Rochas as the builder of "the handsome staircase in the Loretto chapel" This demonstrates among other things that the carpenter's identity was not a mystery to residents of Santa Fe at the time.

Most churches and chapels of that period had ladders, and it is not a stretch to assume that this one originally did too. It seems fairly unlikely, that the contractor would complete the building without a way to access a part of it, and it is almost absurd that nobody noticed that they can’t get to the second floor, before the building was occupied. It is much more likely to presume that either the carpenter, Francois-Jean Rochas, sold them on the idea of replacing the ladder with a beautiful staircase, or one of the nuns found the ladder inconvenient and actively inquired about replacing it.

The chapel was commissioned by Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy and designed by French architect Antoine Mouly with the help of his son, Projectus, who were said to have modeled it on the historic Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.

As to the mystery of the origin of the wood, it turns out that no sampling has been done, and it is most likely just spruce. It would be a mystery if it was some material that is not found on Earth and cannot be manufactured. However, even this would not elevate it to a miracle.

As for the 33 steps being the age of Jesus, numbers are just numbers, and they can be used to prove anything, 92% of people know that! Sorry, but I love that joke, a better explanation is that the size of the number is inversely proportional to the number of similarities it has with something else. That is to say, you will find many more things that have to do with the number 3 compared to the number of things that have the number 18,446,744,073,709,551,617 in common. This is because we have evolved in a finite world so the majority of the items we count end before reaching the billions, trillions, etc. In fact, following that same theory, most of the items we count end before reaching a hundred.

Never the less, there are several points that I did find interesting with the staircase story.

1) The integrity of the structure has long been in question and public use of the stairs has been forbidden since the 1970s.

2) The staircase was originally built without a railing.

3) Both the staircase builder, Francois-Jean Rochas, and the designer of the chapel, Projectus Mouly were both shot dead.

4) Even more interesting is that the builder was murdered by Archbishop Lamy's nephew, who suspected Mouly of philandering with his wife; Archbishop Lamy being the same man that commissioned the building in the first place.

As with most any miraculous claim, this one surfaced well after the people who witnessed the building of the Loretto Chapel firsthand had passed away. Rocha's contribution to the Loretto Chapel faded from memory, and history gave way to legend, as it so often does.

When we use the scientific method of observing, understanding and predicting, we find that so called miracles loose their miraculous nature and return to the common everyday occurrences that we know and understand. Engineering is engineering and ignoring that and calling it something else is insulting to the skill of those who designed and built it.

So in conclusion there is nothing miraculous or even mysterious about the stairway. Claiming a miracle simply because you do not understand something is a logical fallacy; an argument from ignorance! And it reveals more about the person making the claim than the claim itself. It is a testament to our minds that we dream up such immaculate stories but believing in such stories is detrimental to our intelligence!

Additional information