The old buildings of Santa Fe, New Mexico are the colour of warm, red earth. Clay, baked in the desert sun, makes buildings strong enough to stand for centuries. Low, sturdy buildings they are, most of them, their sharp edges moulded and softened as by a potter's hand, standing under a deep blue sky.

It was to this Spanish colonial town in the then wild west that five nuns from the moist green landscapes of Kentucky came in 1852, to build a school and -of course - a chapel.

Only when it was finished, did the sisters discover an oversight. There was no way to get from the ground floor to the choir loft unless they removed most of the chairs to build a staircase - or scrambled up and down a ladder in their robes. They liked neither option.

Turning for help to their patron Saint, the master carpenter St Joseph, the nuns made a novena. Nine days of concentrated prayer.

On the ninth day, a mysterious visitor came to the door of the chapel, a wandering carpenter with a donkey. He carried nothing but three tools - a hammer, a saw and a T-square. The stranger told the nuns he could fix their problem if they would supply tubs of water in which he could soak planks. The tubs provided, he set to work.

The result: a spiral staircase of thirty-three steps. But this was no ordinary spiral staircase. Twenty-two feet tall, with two complete 360-degree turns and without a central support of any kind, it relied for its strength on nothing but its own geometric balance and design. And it contained neither nails nor screws. It was - and still remains - a thing of rare beauty and perfection.

The stranger asked no payment, and when the job was completed he immediately disappeared.

Wanting to thank and reward him, the nuns searched all around the district, but no-one had seen or heard of him. No-one knew where had slept, no-one had fed him. No timber had been purchased anywhere nearby. The timber he had used to make the stair was of a kind unknown in that area. Of the mysterious master carpenter there was no trace.

I read that in 1965, a tourist by the name of Oscar Hadweiber, himself a third generation master carpenter, saw and admired this magnificent piece of carpentry and remembered that his German grandfather, Johann Hadweiber, had come to the USA in the late 1800s and had spent two years in Colorado and New Mexico. According to family lore, he was said to have built a staircase somewhere in the west. The staircase had been constructed in 1878. The dates tallied.

Oscar sent a letter to the current Loretto nuns to say that he was fairly sure his grandfather had been the builder.

Although the nuns must have been disappointed at the thought of losing their legend, they said they were willing to accept his story, provided that he could produce conclusive evidence. Five years later, Oscar claimed to have found a faded sketch of the staircase in his grandfather's old toolbox. But the sketch was never authenticated and has since disappeared. Oscar himself died in 1980.

Much as I felt for Oscar who, like so many of us, was keen to deepen his own sense of belonging in the world by thawing out the frozen stories of his personal ancestors, I found myself feeling glad that he never succeeded in his quest to identify his grandfather as the stranger who built the staircase.

Miracles and mysteries are precious. The are the seasoning that gives flavour to a mundane life; the brush of sacredness that deepens the colours of all things ordinary. They frost the edges of a humdrum day so that it sparkles with new meaning.

If the wounds on the hands of St Francis were found by modern scientists to have been psoriasis, if the apparitions of Mary turn out to be collective psychosis or someone proves that it was really Johann Hadweiber, and not St Joseph, who built the spiral staircase of Loretto Chapel, then something special will be lost.
Mysteries and miracles keep the door of reason propped ajar just a little. Just enough to remind us that we are not totally in control of everything under the sun.
Let's hope that door never slams completely shut. If it does, then hopefully someone, somewhere, upon hearing the bang, will think of having us all do a novena. And let's trust that on the ninth day of our concentrated prayer, a strange visitor will come, on a donkey, carrying only a saw, a hammer, a T-square, to build again for us the possibility of miracles.

Author's Bio: 

Marian Van Eyk McCain. BSW (Melbourne), MA, East-West Psychology (C.I.I.S. San Francisco) is a retired psychotherapist who has published articles on a wide range of subjects, including wellness, psychology, women’s health and spirituality, conscious aging, simple living, environmental politics, organic growing and alternative technology.

Marian is the author of 'Transformation through Menopause' (NY Bergin & Garvey 1991), 'Elderwoman: Reap the wisdom, feel the power, embrace the joy' (Findhorn Press, Scotland, 2002) and 'The Lilypad List: 7 steps to the simple life' (Findhorn Press, 2004).

She also writes poetry and fiction. To read about her latest work - a novel called 'The Bird Menders' and the good cause to which she is donating the royalties, click
Marian can be contacted via her website at