A simple tale, this time. The
holiday season lately seems to have quite enough of its own hurly
burly and clutter, thank you, without hacks such as myself adding
to the cacophony with a jumble of folkloric anecdotes from several
centuries of Christmases past.
A simple tale, then . . .
It would be a little more than
a century ago - 1878 I believe - that this story took place.
It was in Santa Fe, in a little Convent School run by an order
of nuns called the Sisters of Loretto. The local bishop had recently
ordered the construction of a chapel, which was to be known as
the Chapel of Our Lady of Light and was to be modeled after the
"Sainte Chapelle" in Paris. He went so far as to have
a Parisian actually draw up the plans, the chapel was built,
and the result was breathtaking - with one exception: a beautiful
choir loft rested against the rafters of this inspiring edifice
with no staircase, and no way of building one. Five master architects
were summoned one by one, and all quickly admitted failure. It
was a physical and architectural impossibility - the choir loft
was simply too high, and a staircase could not be built.
The sisters were advised to
look into a couple of sturdy ladders. They were, needless to
say, not amused.
It was getting close to Christmas
now, and the resident Head Nun, Mother Magdalene, was preparing
a brief trip to a nearby Indian pueblo that had been stricken
with a deadly outbreak of Measles. She learned that one of the
girls at the school, an Indian girl named Manuela who had been
mute since birth, had admitted yet another would-be architect
to the convent. This one seemed worse equipped than most, armed
as he was with only the most ancient tools, a bit of wood, and
a burro. Unfortunately the Reverend Mother was in a hurry, and
consequently unable to boot this one out the door herself.
And so it was that, while tending
to the sick and dying at the Santo Domingo pueblo, the Reverend
Mother received word that "our little Manuela and the carpenter
have become great friends. It's amazing how much he seems to
know about us all . . ."
Now, anyone who has seen a
Reverend Mother angered knows what now transpired. Those of you
who haven't should count your blessings. In the immortal words
of singer Tommy Makem, "the Marines could use a few good
Boy, was Mother Magdalene livid.
No sooner is she off tending to the infirm than the convent lets
in an obvious itinerant and actually lets him loose doing God
knows what in their beautiful, staircase-less chapel! She tried
to send word to them to get the guy to cease and desist, but
now a horrible snowstorm ensued that made any transportation
or communication impossible.
And so it was that Mother Magdalene
returned in person at the earliest possible moment: Christmas
Eve. And so it was that she found that the carpenter had vanished
without a trace, having taken no money, and having left behind
a staircase that wound magically to the choir loft, with no banisters,
no nails, and seemingly unsupported.
And so it was that, when the
bewildered and awe-struck Reverend Mother asked aloud if they
had even gotten his name, that the mute Manuela uttered
her first word: "Jose".
Jose - Spanish for Joseph .
. . a carpenter named Joseph . . .
As you probably have guessed,
the preceding story is all true. The chapel and its mysterious
staircase still stand in Santa Fe, and architects still pronounce
the construction "impossible".
The staircase is held together
only with wooden pegs - not a single nail was used. There are
exactly 33 steps, one for each year of Christ's life, and the
wood itself is a variety of hard fir, a wood completely nonexistent
in New Mexico.
The school records remain intact,
and show that no payment of any kind was ever made for the building
of the staircase.
Needless to say, the carpenter
was never seen again.