After our Haunted Queen Mary column (August / September 1987) we returned briefly to a monthly schedule, and October I took you all, as promised, to a favorite Haunted place of mine - The Chimes in Lake Elsinore. I was, as always, constrained by space at the time, and once we were online I made a point to revisit that column and enlarge upon it. The new improved version was published online in April '98.

The next column (November '87) dealt with one of my favorite Pilgrim era mysteries - the lost colony of Roanoke. It too was inevitably meant to reappear online, and it did, for our Thanksgiving issue 1999.

And so we jump from late Summer straight to the end of the year: Christmas 1987.

Ah, Christmas! One of my favorite times of year, and always good for folkloric material. I do love the holiday, and rejoice in all the madness and hubub and foolishness that goes along with it.

As of December '87, however, I had noticed that, for the past few years, I'd been getting more and more immersed in the hubub and enjoying it less and less. Therefore, for this our second ever Christmas column, I wanted a simple little story: no ribbons, bows, roaring fires, mingling multitudes, or any of that - I wanted to find something a little quieter, a way to share a bit of the holiday Peace with our readers.

And so I stumbled onto the following tale. I fell in love with it immediately, and a few years after this column was written I was able to visit the very church you are about to read of - yep, I've seen the staircase!

These days I celebrate Christmas with as much jollity as any, but I do like to return to this tale once each year, to pause and reflect for a moment on the great quietly vast mysteries that lie beyond our small mortal revels . . .

A Christmas Story


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 nuns"!

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.