Loretto chapel was completed in 1878. The builders were left with a quandary, however: there was no means of access to the choir loft, little or no room for a staircase, and no one had the slightest idea how Mouly had intended to address the challenge. Unsatisfied with the prevailing opinion that a ladder would have to suffice, the Sisters of Loretto sought divine assistance by praying a novena to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters. On the ninth day of prayer, a stranger appeared with a donkey and a toolbox. He said he needed work, and offered to build a staircase.
Build one he did, and the glistening, all-wood structure is a marvel to behold, spiraling upward 22 feet from floor to loft in two 360-degree turns without any evident means of support. The ingenious carpenter not only solved the problem of floor space, but in so doing designed a structure whose beauty actually enhanced the aesthetic appeal of the entire chapel.
When the sisters went to thank him, he was gone. No one even knew his name. "After searching for the man (an ad even ran in the local newspaper) and finding no trace of him," says the Loretto Chapel Website, "some concluded that he was St. Joseph himself who came in answer to the sisters' prayers."
The "miracle," then, is twofold: one, the staircase was built by a nameless stranger -- possibly St. Joseph himself -- who seemingly appeared in answer to a prayer and disappeared just as mysteriously; two, though built entirely of wood -- no nails, no screws, no metal of any kind -- and lacking any kind of central support, the staircase was structurally sound and still stands today.