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Lessons of Faith from a Miraculous Staircase

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Lessons of Faith from a Miraculous Staircase

It can be difficult to teach the kids you love about faith and the power of God’s providence. Often we find that these are abstract concepts, difficult to explain, and we decide to leave them alone, to put off talking about them until children are older. But the true story of the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico, demonstrates the power of prayer—and can open kids’ eyes to the wonders of God’s work.

The story begins when a group of seven sisters set out to build a chapel in 1878. They hired an architect to design and build the chapel, but he died before he got around to creating a staircase that would connect the chapel’s ground floor with the choir loft 22 feet above. This created a real problem because there simply wasn’t enough space for a staircase. The sisters would have to use a ladder to access the loft, which wasn’t workable for all the nuns.

So they did the only thing they could do: they prayed.

The sisters began a novena to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters. Mother Magdalen recorded in the convent’s annals that the erection of the chapel had been placed under the patronage of St. Joseph “in whose honor we communicated every Wednesday, that he might assist us. Of his powerful help, we have been witnesses on several occasions.” They were about to see another such occasion.

On the final day of the novena, a man appeared with a donkey and a toolbox. He immediately went into the chapel and started building, using limited tools and a mysterious spruce-type wood not native to the American Southwest. He finished the staircase, working when the sisters weren’t around and disappeared without asking for either money or gratitude. The sisters searched for him, even running an advertisement in the local newspaper, but he had disappeared completely. Some believe he was Saint Joseph himself, while others believe that he was someone sent by Saint Joseph. There was some evidence that the carpenter was possibly a Frenchman named François Rochas.

There hadn’t been space for a typical staircase, and what this carpenter built wasn’t even close to typical: it has two 360 degree turns and no visible means of support, and is held together with pegs and glue rather than nails. The staircase itself is a remarkable feat of woodworking. According to a Washington Post column by Tim Carter, "It's a magnificent work of art that humbles me as a master carpenter. To create a staircase like this using modern tools would be a feat. It's mind-boggling to think about constructing such a marvel with crude hand tools, no electricity, and minimal resources."

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There are many mysteries surrounding the staircase, but one thing is clear: the problem was solved because of the sisters’ faith. They believed that God had an answer for them, and they prayed. They didn’t tell God what they needed; he already knew what they needed. They simply prayed for help.

All throughout his ministry, Jesus repeatedly pointed out people of faith. He praised people who demonstrated faith—and admonished the people in his inner circle when they didn’t demonstrate faith. Over and over again, St. Paul writes to the various congregations of the early Church of the virtues and necessity of faith. It’s a concept that echoes throughout the New Testament.

Faith is knowing—not just thinking, but knowing—that God is listening, and that he will respond to our prayers.

So what does this have to do with something like a mysterious staircase? It’s not too far off to call the construction of that staircase a miracle. It logically shouldn’t have happened—experts are still puzzled over it. Something with no natural explanation happened in response to prayer. The sisters didn’t believe in God because of this miracle; their faith preceded it.

If we have faith, then anything can happen. Literally!

by Jeannette de Beauvoir

 

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