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Some among you may recall I spent a few months in Santa Fe several years back. New Mexico became my second home in 1963 after my parents moved there from Harrison during my junior year and we settled in nearby Albuquerque. The high desert was nothing new and I was always infatuated with the Sangre De Cristo Mountains that tower over Santa Fe.

Then there's Santa Fe's Loretto Chapel and its mystical spiral staircase, which even a century after it was built by an unknown carpenter cannot be explained to the satisfaction of architects and the Catholic Church.

Reportedly built single-handedly by a wandering carpenter who arrived at the chapel, home to the Sisters of Loretto between 1873 and 1878, the richly polished staircase uses 33 wooden steps to climb 22 feet into a choir loft at the rear of the church.

During times I've visited the reverent sanctuary, it's been to observe visitors and absorb the grandeur of the intimate room and the staircase itself.

The grace and beauty of these double-helix stairs supposedly created from a variety of spruce likely not native to New Mexico leave visitors wondering how these tight circular steps could have been created, and using only wooden pegs rather than nails or screws.

Architects today remain baffled over how this stranger who appeared shortly after the nuns had prayed for a week to St. Joseph (the patron saint of carpentry) could have fashioned a miraculous stairway to the choir loft that had somehow been overlooked when the church was built.

The deeper story goes that this man (who the sisters believed was St. Joseph himself) rode into Santa Fe carrying only a hammer, saw and nail pegs. He used a barrel of water and, within weeks, had completed his work and departed as he'd arrived, without compensation.

Amateur historian Mary Jean Cook identified the "probable" builder as François-Jean "Frank" or "Frenchy" Rochas, who died in 1894. He's described as a "reclusive rancher and occasional carpenter" who arrived in New Mexico from France around the 1870s.

For whatever reason, whoever created this inspired masterpiece failed to put railings on the steps. Those were added a few years after the staircase was completed.

Santa Fe is one of those places (much like I find Eureka Springs) that resonates with spiritual and creative significance. It is the kind of community where this staircase story could carry a sense of credibility.

Dave's GodNod

Reader Dave Austin sent this (lightly edited) GodNod. Got one to share?

On a beautiful October day, Dave and three friends decided to go fishing at a state park about 40 miles distant. Piling into friend Andy's '78 Gran Torino, they hit the road. Approaching a railroad crossing, Dave saw flashing red lights, but no dropping crossbars. "I warned Andy. He responded, 'Ah, there's no train coming,'" said Dave.

Closer to the intersection he could hear the locomotive's horn and feel the massive rumble and vibration. He yelled, "Turn to the right ... right," wanting Andy to leave the road rather than be struck. The car was T-boned by the engine of a 74-car freight train moving 47 mph. Police estimated the car's speed at 5 mph.

"The impact tore the front end away and snapped the transmission. Upon impact, the car was pushed down an embankment and rolled several times, ending up on its roof. Andy was thrown and suffered multiple injuries including a broken pelvis. I was seated behind him. My friend Jeff, beside me, was ejected out the rear window and suffered injuries including a lacerated liver. He was rendered comatose and died 28 days later.

"I was partially ejected through the back window and had my back crushed when the vehicle rolled. My lifelong friend Eric, in the front passenger seat, was uninjured and pulled me from the vehicle."

After striking the engine, the left rear, where Dave was sitting, slapped the locomotive as they were dragged. He was knocked unconscious before the car rolled.

At this point Dave had an out-of-body experience. "I found myself hovering above the scene, Andy was laying near the driver's door. Jeff was in the corn stubble convulsing and flopping. I could see the wreckage and smell the coolant and hear the bells of the train.

"Then I moved away," he continued. "Things were all of a sudden peaceful. I was detached with no concerns. It was as if all the questions I had were answered. I wasn't afraid. I was confident and at peace. There was no background. But there was no darkness, only comfort. I was no longer limited by the five senses."

He's uncertain how long this state lasted. The next thing he recalled was being loaded into an ambulance. It must have been some time, though, since the incident occurred in a rural area at least 20 minutes from town.

"It's my firm belief we each have a soul, an essence, an internal energy, whatever you want to call it. It is limited by our physical bodies but will be freed when our bodies die. Energy always creates more energy--it just changes form. There's nothing to fear. A new existence awaits."

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.


Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at [email protected]

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