The Truth Behind the Loretto Chapel Staircase
[Re: Feature, " 7 Wonders of New Mexico," May 12-18] I know I’m not the first reader who will be surprised by the omission of El Morro National Monument in a short list of New Mexico wonders. And don’t get me started on Sandia Man Cave. Sometimes you gotta pick your battles, though.
So here’s my pick: Perpetuating the “lore” about the miraculous Loretto Chapel staircase in Santa Fe and repeating the tourist trap nonsense that credits a mysterious visit by a Biblical character with its creation. Really?
Actually this is half of a two-part New Mexico history pet peeve of mine; 1) that the real builder of the staircase is rarely credited and his fascinating story is practically unknown in New Mexico history books, and 2) the place where the master craftsman later lived and died ended up being named “Oliver Lee State Park” after the rancher/senator/henchman who was most likely involved in his murder.
The carpenter’s name was Francois-Jean Rochas, an expert woodworker who came from France and arrived in Santa Fe around 1880. He may have even been commissioned to work on the chapel by Bishop Lamy, as were other French and Italian masons and carpenters. This story came back to light in the late ’90s when Mary Jean Straw Cook, author of Loretto: The Sisters and Their Santa Fe Chapel (Museum of New Mexico Press, 2002) found an 1895 death notice in The New Mexican specifically naming Rochas as the builder of “the handsome staircase in the Loretto chapel.” If this tidbit was printed in the newspaper at the time, shouldn’t we have known something about it all along? Not if the Loretto chapel owners or the miracle-aficionados have anything to do with it. Her book tells a fascinating history of the staircase, the chapel, the people who built them and the nuns and others who worked there.
After Rochas finished his work in Santa Fe, he headed south where he built a homestead and lived as a hermit in Dog Canyon at the base of the Sacramento Mountains. He channeled the year-round water from the canyon to irrigate his farm; raising cattle, growing grapes, cherries, peaches, figs and olives. While there is some evidence that he continued to do some fine carpentry in the area (including some work in Oliver Lee’s home), he also built himself a stone cabin and hand-carried huge boulders up the canyon to create walls to keep in his cattle. He and Oliver Lee helped each other out for a time, but then something about water—I’ll let you Google the rest of that sad story.
Now Rochas (called “Frenchy”) is portrayed as kind of a grumpy nut who died “mysteriously” in his cabin in 1895, while Oliver Lee (implicated in several other murders besides this one) later got a park and a whole bunch of other stuff around there named after him. And Saint Joseph gets credit for the Loretto staircase.
The ruins of Rochas cabin and the stone walls up the mountainside are still there. But you have to look really hard in the Oliver Lee Visitor Center to find anything connecting Frenchy to the Loretto staircase in Santa Fe, just like you won’t find much about Rochas in the Loretto chapel gift shop (though I think they have Cook’s book there).
Two pieces of New Mexico history that far outshine the fictional “lore” and deserve to be told right, in my opinion.
The Tree of Liberty
Many tea party types and their predecessors in the ’90s seemed to have a fetish about this quote by Thomas Jefferson: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." As usual, they have no context to place the quote in. Jefferson was in pre-Revolutionary France when he made that statement and was reacting to the aftermath of Shays' Rebellion in Massachusetts. He felt that the push for a strong central government would not necessarily be better than state elites that had caused the rebellion in first place, but would rather simply replace them at a larger level. Jefferson felt the rebellion was founded in ignorance, but also was the result of a lack of institutions that balanced out the interests of business elites and banks versus commoners; did not think it was serious enough to spur a new governing pact. In later years, Jefferson toned down his radical rhetoric and said in a letter to Dutch diplomat Charles William Frederick Dumas, Jefferson observed, "Happy for us, that when we find our constitutions defective and insufficient to secure the happiness of our people, we can assemble with all the coolness of philosophers and set it to rights, while every other nation on earth must have recourse to arms to amend or to restore their constitutions."
The ones throwing out the quote now cannot define one instance in which their freedoms have been stripped under Obama. Not one! The whole run on ammo in early 2009 was a scare tactic that proved to be a boon for gun dealers but nothing came of that scare. Has Obama seized anyone's property or factories? Has there been forced conscription? Are there gulags or indoctrination centers? The tea party is a fraud funded by corporate interests and the rank and file are low IQ, low information idiots who are upset that a black man who is more educated than they are is President. Hopefully, the tea party will go the way of the militias of the ’90s.
The Grief Center
The recent article about Tera Cordova Chavez [News Feature, “She Loved Strong,” April 21-27] was a lovely tribute to a beautiful young woman whose life was cut short much too soon. The circumstances surrounding her death, and the fact that she leaves behind two young children, make it all the more tragic. Whenever reports in the news feature kids losing a parent, you can’t help but wonder, What will happen to them? My heart breaks for these two youngsters who will never see their mom again—but I'm so glad the Children's Grief Center is here for all kids in our area who have been through an awful circumstance such as this one. After the well-wishers are long gone, but their pain and confusion remains, they can come here and work it all out.
The Grief Center is a totally free resource for young people ages 5 to 25 who have experienced the death of a loved one. Here they can come together in specialized peer support groups to talk about what happened with other people their same age who have been through something similar. With so much sadness permeating so much of our news, it is nice to know that there is one place that offers hope—the Grief Center is one bright spot that shines in the aftermath of all that darkness.
A young person at the Grief Center wrote a card to her dead father that read, “My dad used to make pancakes on Sunday Morning. I miss Dad. I miss pancakes.” Giving kids a chance to remember the things they loved most about their special person who died is an important step in their path to healing. The Grief Center is the only place in central New Mexico that offers these important services.
[Re: Feature, " 7 Underwhelming Wonders," May 12-18] I know that Arizona is pretty much an embarrassment to us all, but it is geographically impossible for Nevada to be one of the Four Corners, no matter how much one may wish it were so.
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