By Nathalie Bonnard-Grenet
Before we enter into the chapel…we will read this sign: “Loretto Chapel, built in 1873, Miraculous Stairway”. Everything you can read on it, is erroneous!
Loretto Chapel! No no no, but maybe “The Chapel of our Lady of Light” was a little bit too long to put on this sign. But that is its real name.
Built in 1873! Do you really think that such a sophisticate jewel could have been built in one single year? It took 5 to be completed, until 1878.
The best! Miraculous Stairway…
The legend goes… I won’t give you all the sleazy – flimsy details of the story.
But it is said that due to the murder of young Mouly, the architect of the chapel, the choir was left with no plans or drawings to figure out how access it!
The Loretto sisters begun to do what they knew best, they pray! And it worked!
After 9 days of prayers (called a novena) to St Joseph, the patron saint of the carpenters…a white bearded-man carrying a toolbox and traveling with a donkey, appear at the convent door, seeking for work… as a carpenter! What a great co incidence!
The sisters employed him immediately. The man built a two 360 degree spiral staircase, piece of art! And disappeared, without even asking to be paid for his labor!
Who wouldn’t want to know the name of such a model employee! Many begun to assure that Saint Joseph himself came to built the Miraculous Staircase, in Santa Fe!
And this… was the Legend.
And this is the object of the controversy.
What everyone agrees on, is that this is artistically evident that the 19th century craftsman who built the staircase in this chapel was a MASTER carpenter. From any angle you look at it, it’s simply magnificent
and perfect! After many years of thorough research, Mary Straw Cook, the author of the book Loretto: The Sisters and Their Santa Fe Chapel could state with no doubts: Francois-Jean Rochas, was the talented carpenter.
The question now is: HOW did he build it? How this amazing stairway can stand without a central axe and no nails?…
Rochas, also known as ‘Frenchy’ seemed to have received training as a ‘compagnon’.
When I researched on the compagnon’s carpenter from his time, 19th century, these types of stairways were quiet common.
‘The compagnons du tour de France’, that’s their exact name, – absolutely not related to the ‘actual tour de France’ that you might have heard from – is a French organization of craftsmen and artisans dating from the Middle age, and still active today!
The young people who aspire to become a compagnon, have to take a two years course, where they learn the basic of their work, then they leave for a ‘Tour de France” which now can be all around the world, for three to five years, in different cities, and with different masters.
The knowledge is transmitted only verbally from masters to apprentice; it is kept secret because only those who deserve it can receive the knowledge. It is not a technical knowledge only, but also the teaching of philosophy, the symbolic, and values: fraternity, equity, and appreciation of the well-done labor for the welfare of the community. Only those who can apply these values in their everyday life are worthy of the knowledge. At the end of their ‘compagnonnage’, the student has to build a ‘model’ of EXCEPTION to show his abilities, before receiving the title of ‘compagnon’.
Even with a nice and well said legend, it’s the labor and chef d’oeuvre which really matter and which is admire centuries later. As a compagnon, I’m sure Rochas understood this. It was not about him, it was about doing something of exception for the benefice of the community. And for the little story, he did receive payment for his labor. (see pictures above from the museums of ‘les compagnons du tour de France’ of the 19th century.
As Benjamin Franklin said: “Well done is better than well said”.