May 27, 2005

‘Miraculous staircase’ beckons
pilgrims to visit Santa Fe

By John Fink

SANTA FE, N.M.—Santa Fe is a fascinating city to visit, both because of its history and because it is the home of some of today’s best artists. More than 200 artists call Santa Fe their home.

The state capitol building, built in 1966, is filled with paintings and sculptures, and is one of the most beautiful capitol buildings in the United States.

As for history, Santa Fe was the destination of thousands of 19th-century pioneers who traveled the Santa Fe Trail, which began in Independence, Mo. It took travelers four-and-a-half months to travel it. Tourists can see the end of the trail.

San Miguel Mission is touted as the oldest church in continuous use in what is now the United States. Residents of St. Augustine, Fla., might object to that distinction, but people in Santa Fe claim that the cathedral in St. Augustine was not in continuous use. San Miguel was built in 1610 then rebuilt in 1693 after the Indians severely damaged it in their uprising of 1680.

The Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe is famous for its “miraculous staircase.” Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy, who came to Santa Fe in 1851, brought some Sisters of Loretto to Santa Fe to start a school for girls.

While Archbishop Lamy was constructing his cathedral, he also started the building of this chapel. But somehow it was built with a choir loft with no staircase to it. Men used to climb a ladder to get there, but the sisters wanted a staircase. Unfortunately, there wasn’t room for a normal staircase.

One night, as the sisters finished a nine-day novena to St. Joseph, a carpenter showed up who volunteered to build a circular staircase. He spent six months on the staircase, which consists of 33 steps with two complete 360-degree turns.

The staircase has no nails or central support post and, it turned out, nobody knows where the wood came from since it’s not native to New Mexico. Once the staircase was completed, the stranger disappeared without asking for payment either for materials or for his labor. Naturally, the sisters believed that it was St. Joseph.

The cathedral has a reredos with paintings of 15 saints (actually, 13 saints and two blesseds)—Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Martin de Porres, St. John Neumann, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, St. Katherine Drexel, St. Philip of Jesus, St. Rose of Lima, St. Francis Solano, St. Peter Claver, St. Isaac Jogues, St. Miguel Febres Cordero, Blessed Kateri Takakwitha and Blessed Junipero Serra.

The cathedral also has a Spanish Chapel that venerates La Conquistadora, a small statue of Mary that is reputed to be the oldest Marian statue in the U.S. It figured in the re-conquest of Santa Fe by Don Diego de Vargas in 1693. Today, the statue is dressed in various costumes, much as is done for the Infant of Prague.

Santa Fe boasts five museums, some better than others. The best, as far as I was concerned when my wife and I visited, was the Palace of the Governors because it covered the history of Santa Fe and we had a wonderful guide who really made that history come alive.

The palace was built in 1610 and is the oldest continuously occupied building in the U.S. It once was much larger than it is today because it housed the governors, their families and governmental offices.

When Santa Fe was established in 1607, it was the northernmost point of the Spanish Empire in the New World.

The Spanish who lived in Santa Fe during the 17th century did not treat the Native Americans well, and they finally revolted in 1680, killing a number of the Spanish before survivors managed to get to the Palace of the Governors. The Indians then allowed them to leave and the Spanish went to El Paso.

The king of Spain ordered Don Diego de Vargas to regain the city, but it took him a long time to do it. When he finally arrived in Santa Fe, after praying to La Conquis­tadora for help, the Indians surprisingly welcomed the Spanish with open arms. By this time, there was a common enemy in the nomadic Indians and the Pueblo Indians in Santa Fe saw the Spanish as friends. After 1693, though, the Spanish treated the Indians better and there was more cooperation.

Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821 and Santa Fe residents became Mexicans. As Mexicans, though, they were free to trade with Americans—something they had been forbidden to do by Spain—and the Santa Fe Trail was developed.

In 1846, Santa Fe became an American territory. New Mexico became the 47th state of the United States in 1912.

The second museum in Santa Fe is the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, which houses 100 of the famous artist’s paintings and one sculpture. She lived much of her life in New Mexico, and spent her last years in Santa Fe. She died in 1986 at age 98.

The third museum we visited was the Museum of Fine Arts, which turned out to be a disappointment for us although other people might enjoy it.

Next was the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. It told the history of the Indians from 500 B.C., and its six sections detailed various aspects of Indian life. There were numerous items of pottery, baskets, clothing, dolls, jewelry, blankets and other belongings. There are 21 Indian reservations in New Mexico.

Our fifth museum was the Museum of International Folk Art. This museum turned out to be better than I expected. Unfortunately, we arrived there at 4:30 p.m. and it closed at 5 p.m. so we only got to see two areas. The first was Tibetan art by New Mexican Tibetans in exile, and it was much more extensive than one would imagine. The second area was Hispanic, with a “faith and family” theme. It concentrated on New Mexican art, mainly religious subjects, including one section on New Mexican madonnas. We were sorry that we couldn’t see more of the folk art museum.

That evening, we had dinner at a restaurant in a former convent that was part of the Guadalupe Mission Church complex. After dinner, we walked across the street to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, a very attractive church where a Mass in Spanish was just beginning.

(John F. Fink is editor emeritus of The Criterion.)


Local site Links: