The Miraculous Staircase
By Arthur Gordon
A haunting Christmas legend, passed down through the years, to all those who are believers. On that cool December morning in 1878, sunlight lay like an amber rug across the dusty streets and adobe houses of Santa Fe. It glinted on the bright tile roof of the almost completed Chapel of Our Lady of Light and on the nearby windows of the convent school run by the Sisters of Loretto. Inside the convent Mother Superior looked up from her packing as a tap came on her door.
“It’s another carpenter, Reverend Mother,” said Sister Francis Louise, her round face apologetic. “I told him that you’re leaving right away, that you haven’t time to see him but he says….”
“I know what he says,” Mother Magdalene said, going on resolutely with her packing. “That he’s heard about our problem with the new chapel. That he’s the best carpenter in all of New Mexico. That he can build us a staircase to the choir loft despite the fact that the brilliant architect in Paris who drew the plans failed to leave any space for one. And despite the fact that five master carpenters have already tried and failed. You’re quite right, Sister; I don’t have time to listen to that story again.”
“But he seems such a nice man,” said Sister Francis Louise, wistfully, “and he’s out there with his burro, and…”
“I’m sure,” said Mother Magdalene with a smile, “that he’s a charming man, and that his burro is a charming donkey. But there’s sickness down at the Santo Domingo pueblo and it may be cholera. Sister Mary Helen and I are the only ones here who’ve had cholera, so we have to go. And you have to stay and run the school. And that’s that!” Then she called, “Manuela!”
A young Indian girl of twelve or thirteen, black-haired and smiling, came in quietly on moccasined feet. She was a mute. She could hear and understand, but the Sisters had been unable to teach her to speak. The Mother Superior spoke to her gently, “Take my things down to the wagon, child. I’ll be right there.” And to Sister Francis Louise, “You’d better tell your carpenter friend to come back in two or three weeks, I’ll see him then.”
“Two or three weeks! Surely you’ll be home for Christmas?”
“If it’s the Lord’s will, Sister I hope so.”
In the street, beyond the waiting wagon, Mother Magdalene could see the carpenter, a bearded man, strongly built and taller than most Mexicans, with dark eyes and a smiling, wind-burned face. Beside him, laden with tools and scraps of lumber, a small gray burro stood patiently. Manuela was stroking its nose, glancing shyly at its owner, “You’d better explain,” said the Mother Superior, “that the child can hear him, but can’t speak.”
Good-byes were quick—the best kind when you leave a place you love. Southwest, then, along the dusty trail the mountains purple with shadow, the Rio Grande a ribbon of green far off to the right. The pace was slow, but Mother Magdalene and Sister Mary Helen amused themselves by singing songs and telling Christmas stories as the sun marched up and down the sky. And their leathery driver listened and nodded.
Two days of this brought them to Santo Domingo Pueblo, where the sickness was not cholera after all, but measles, almost as deadly in an Indian village. And so they stayed, helping the harassed Father Sebastian, visiting the dark adobe hovels where feverish brown children tossed and fierce Indian dogs showed their teeth.
At night they were bone weary, but sometimes Mother Magdalene found time to talk to Father Sebastian about her plans for the dedication of the new chapel. It was to be in April, the Archbishop himself would be there. And it might have been dedicated sooner, were it not for this incredible business of a choir loft with no means of access—unless it were a ladder.
“I told the Bishop,” said Mother Magdalene, “that it would be a mistake to have the plans drawn in Paris. If something went wrong, what could we do? But he wanted our chapel in Santa Fe patterned after the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, and who am I to argue with Bishop Lamy? So the talented Monsieur Mouly designs a beautiful choir loft high up under the rose window, and no way to get to it.”
“Perhaps,” sighed Father Sebastian, “he had in mind a heavenly choir. The kind with wings.”
“It’s not funny,” said Mother Magdalene a bit sharply. “I’ve prayed and prayed, but apparently there’s no solution at all. There just isn’t room on the chapel floor for the supports such staircase needs.”
The days passed, and with each one Christmas drew closer. Twice, horsemen on their way from Santa Fe to Albuquerque brought letters from Sister Francis Louise. All was well at the convent, but Mother Magdalene frowned over certain paragraphs. “The children are getting ready for Christmas,” Sister Francis Louise wrote in her first letter. “Our little Manuela and the carpenter have become great friends. It’s amazing how much he seems to know about us all.”
And what, thought Mother Magdalene, is the carpenter still doing there?
The second letter also mentioned the carpenter. “Early every morning he comes with another load of lumber, and every night he goes away. When we ask him by what authority he does these things, he smiles and says nothing. We have tried to pay him for his work, but he will accept no pay.”
Work? What work? Mother Magdalene wrinkled up her nose in exasperation. Had the softhearted Sister Francis Louise given the man permission to putter around in the new chapel? With firm and disapproving hand, the Mother Superior wrote a note ordering an end to all unauthorized activities. She gave it to an Indian pottery-maker on his way to Santa Fe.
But that night the first snow fell, so thick and heavy that the Indian turned back. Next day at noon the sun shone again on a world glittering with diamonds. But Mother Magdalene knew that another snowfall might make it impossible for her to be home for Christmas. By now the sickness at Santo Domingo was subsiding. And so that afternoon they began the long ride back.
The snow did come again, making their slow progress even slower. It was late on Christmas Eve, close to midnight, when the tired horses plodded up to the convent door. But lamps still burned. Manuela flew down the steps, Sister Francis Louise close behind her. And chilled and weary though she was, Mother Magdalene sensed instantly an excitement, an electricity in the air that she could not understand.
Nor did she understand it when they led her, still in her heavy wraps, down the corridor into the new, as yet unused chapel, where a few candles burned. “Look, Reverend Mother,” breathed Sister Francis Louise, “Look!”
Like a curl of smoke the staircase rose before them, as insubstantial as a dream. Its base was on the chapel floor; its top rested against the choir loft. Nothing else supported it; it seemed to float on air. There were no banisters. Two complete spirals it made, the polished wood gleaming softly in the candlelight. “Thirty-three steps,” whispered Sister Francis Louise. “One for each year in the life of Our Lord.”
Mother Magdalene moved forward like a woman in a trance. She put her foot on the first step, then on the second, then the third. There was not a tremor. She looked down, bewildered, at Manuela’s ecstatic, upturned face. “But it’s impossible! There wasn’t enough time!”
“He finished it yesterday,” the Sister said. “He didn’t come today. No one has seen him anywhere in Santa Fe. He’s gone.”
The Sister shook her head, but now Manuela pushed forward, nodding emphatically. Her mouth opened; she took a deep shuddering breath; she made a sound that was like a gasp in the stillness. The nuns stared at her, transfixed. She tried again. This time it was a syllable, followed by another. “Jo-se.” She clutched the Mother Superior’s arm and repeated the first word she had ever spoken. “Jose.”
Sister Francis Louise crossed herself. Mother Magdalene felt her heart contract. Jose–the Spanish word for Joseph. Joseph the Carpenter. Joseph the Master Woodworker of…
“Jose.” Manuela’s dark eyes were full of tears. “Jose”
Silence, then, in the shadowy chapel. No one moved. Far away across the snow silvered town Mother Magdalene heard a bell tolling midnight. She came down the stairs and took Manuela’s hand. She felt uplifted by a great urge of wonder and gratitude and compassion and love. And she knew what it was. It was the spirit of Christmas. And it was upon them.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The wonderful thing about legends is the way they can be told and retold and embroidered a bit more each time. This, indeed, is such a retelling. But all good legends contain a grain of truth. And in this case the irrefutable fact at the heart of the legend is the inexplicable staircase itself.
You may see it yourself in Santa Fe today. It stands as it stood when the chapel was dedicated almost ninety years ago—except for the banister, which was added later. Tourists stare and marvel. Architects shake their heads and murmur, “Impossible.” No one knows the identity of the designer-builder. All the Sisters know is that the problem existed, a stranger came, solved it, and left.
The thirty-three steps make two complete turns without central support. There are no nails in the staircase; only wooden pegs. The curved stringers are put together with exquisite precision; the wood is spliced in seven places on the inside and nine on the outside. The wood is said to be a hard-fir variety, nonexistent in New Mexico. School accounts show no record that any payment for the staircase was ever made.
Who is real and who is imaginary in this version of the story? Mother Mary Magdalene was indeed the first Mother Superior; she came to Santa Fe by riverboat and covered wagon in 1852.
Bishop J. B. Lamy was indeed her Bishop. And Monsieur Projectus Mouly of Paris was indeed the absent-minded architect.
Sister Francis Louise? Well, there must have been someone like her. And Manuela, the Indian girl came out of nowhere to help with the embroidery.
The carpenter himself? Ah, who can say?