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Did ‘Frenchy,’ the Dog Canyon cattleman, build the ‘Miracle Staircase’ in Santa Fe?

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The enigmatic “Miracle Staircase” at Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe. (Janice Dunnahoo Photo)

Two weeks ago, on June 24, I wrote a story about the life and times of “Frenchy” Rochas. Frenchy was one of the early settlers of the Dog Canyon area of the Sacramento Mountains. He was a pioneer, whose real name was Francois-Jean Rochas. Frenchy”was born in France in 1843 and emigrated to New Mexico in the 1880s. Frenchy was a sort of recluse, who was a very interesting, brave and hard-working man.

The Academy of Our Lady of Light-Sisters of Loretto. (Courtesy of Historical Society
for Southeast New Mexico)

After building quite a herd of cattle, planting vineyards and creating a sort of oasis on the side of this very rough and rugged terrain, he ended up being murdered by men who were never charged for their crime.

Since writing that article, I have found out more mystery surrounding this reclusive little Frenchman. There is much speculation and some even possible proof that he might have been the builder of the famous Miracle Staircase at Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe.

If you have never been to visit this place it is an amazing and wondrous place! You can drive there and back from Roswell quite easily in one day. Following is more information on it:

Santa Fe — the City of Holy Faith. It was here that in the 1800s seven nuns set up a school for girls, and when it was time, they built a chapel. This is where the legend of the Loretto Chapel staircase began. Ever since, faithful visitors have been flocking to the church to get a peek at the subject of the Santa Fe miracle — the chapel stairs.

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History of the Loretto Chapel

Loretto Chapel. (Janice Dunnahoo Photo)

In 1872, the Bishop of the Santa Fe archdiocese was Jean-Baptiste Lamy. French by birth, he was elected as the very first bishop of the diocese and commissioned and oversaw the construction of a chapel named Our Lady of Light in 1873. A religious order called the Sisters of Loretto would maintain the chapel.

It was built in the popular Gothic Revival style, and the entire chapel was designed by renowned French architect Antoine Mouly. Unfortunately, Mouly never lived to see the work completed. The structure was sound and almost finished by 1878. The only thing lacking was a means to ascend to the choir loft. The chapel was not a very big sanctuary, so a standard staircase was ruled to be too large to be practical. Other churches and chapels of the same period had ladders as opposed to stairs. However, the sisters quickly dismissed this idea due to their dress; it wouldn’t be practical.

Without a way to reach the loft, the chapel would not be able to function properly. While the likely proposals, suggestions and ideas were being debated by members of the construction industry, the sisters considered this to be nothing more than a test of their faith.

The entire order began to pray to St. Joseph — the patron saint of carpenters — to help with a solution for the chapel stairs. This was around 1880. On the ninth day of prayer, a visitor arrived at their door with his mule and some tools. The first thing the man revealed to the sisters was that he was a carpenter by trade. He was invited in, and discovered the dilemma left behind with the untimely passing of the original architect. The solo workman, unlike many tradesmen prior to him, said that it was possible to construct a useful staircase to the loft without becoming an eyesore in the available space. The only condition he placed upon the sisters was that he would have to work in private. The sisters were only too pleased to agree to these terms if it meant getting their staircase done.

While they used the chapel for their own activities, the carpenter retreated — returning only when the chapel was empty. Some of the sisters said they saw wood soaking in tubs they provided for him. Reports made at the time do contradict one another. Some insist that construction was completed quickly, while others reported that it took longer than might have been necessary.

The carpenter vanishes

The Spiral Staircase was finally completed and the sisters were thrilled. They wanted to have a party in honor of the amazing craftsman carpenter, but he was gone. He had never given them his name, nor asked for or received payment. Who was this man? That is one of the many mysteries surrounding the Loretta Chapel Staircase.

How does the staircase stand up?

Another mystery is the construction of the Loretto staircase itself. There are no central columns or support beams, and it appears that all the weight is self-supported at the base. The craftsman did not use nails or glue; he only used wooden pegs to secure the steps. Additionally, there were no railings. The legend says that some of the nuns were so afraid to descend the 22-foot drop that they would crawl down on their hands and knees. There are only 33 steps, however, the staircase wraps around 360 degrees twice. The number 33 is a significant number, being the age of Jesus at his crucifixion. The sisters were adamant that it was St. Joseph himself that came to their rescue. Thus, people have given the stairs the nickname, St. Joseph’s Staircase.

When local trade suppliers were contacted in an effort to track this craftsman down, none of them could help in any way at all. No bill of sales could be retrieved and the lumber that was used was discovered to be of an unknown type. Whatever the wood that was used, it was not indigenous to the Santa Fe area.

A modern analysis revealed the wood to be spruce, but a variety that no one was familiar with. It was concluded that the closest possible locale for wood of this type would have been somewhere like Alaska. Why would a Victorian carpenter transport scores of lumber with nothing more than a mule, just on the off-chance that it might be needed to build a staircase thousands of miles away?

So how did this really come about? Mary J. Straw Cook, a historian, researched the Santa Fe stairs for seven years. She found many clues about the mysterious carpenter, enough so that she complied it into a book called “Loretta: The Seven Sisters and Their Mysterious Chapel,” which was published in 1984.

Did Frenchy belong to a secret society?

Cook also found an old newspaper article in The New Mexican that said Rochas had been shot in the chest in his Dog Canyon home, and that he had been a skilled woodworker who built the impressive Loretto Chapel staircase. According to Cook, Rochas was a member of a French secret society of highly skilled craftsmen and artisans called the Compagnons, which has existed since the Middle Ages. Cook says that Rochas came to the U.S. specifically to build the Santa Fe staircase and that he had the wood shipped from France.

While some of the legends may have been demystified with information about its supposed builder, many people who have seen the stairs claim this makes it no less of a miracle. Where did the inspiration and knowledge come from to build a stunning staircase that still impresses even the best craftsmen around today?

Was this reclusive little Frenchman that seemingly had no close friends, special in some way? Why did he come to the United States, really?

What cannot be debated is the marvelous and miraculous work of art that was left behind.

Janice Dunnahoo is an archive volunteer at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or by email at jdhist4@outlook.com.