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The Spirit of Santa Fe

April 12, 1998|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One of the biggest tourist attractions in Santa Fe, N.M. is the "Miraculous Staircase" in the Loretto Chapel. More than 364,000 people flock yearly to see the circular structure, which was built by a mysterious stranger in 1878.

An engineering and architectural wonder, the staircase was built without any nails or center support. It was made of a type of wood that is still of unknown origin but recently coined as "Loretto spruce" because no other classification exists.

"It's a beautiful legend," says Bill Brokaw, curator of the chapel, which has been a museum for the past two decades. "But regardless of who built it, it is an engineering phenomenon."

A new CBS movie, "The Staircase," premiering Easter Sunday, is a fictionalized version of how it came to be constructed.

Barbara Hershey stars as feisty Mother Madalyn, the terminally ill mother superior of the Sisters of Loretto. Originally from Ireland, Mother Madalyn had endured unspeakable horrors while leading her order from Kentucky to New Mexico 20 years earlier.

With her death imminent, she is obsessed with finishing the chapel, which she sees as her gift to God. But her faith is shaken when she learns the building lacks a staircase to the choir loft. Because of the shape of the church, the architect and builder believe it's impossible to add stairs.

After Mother Madalyn prays to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters, an enigmatic man named Joad (William Petersen) arrives and offers to build the nuns a staircase. Using only the simplest of tools, he manages to create a miracle.

"The Staircase" was a real labor of love for executive producer Craig Anderson ("The Piano Lesson") and writer Christopher Lofton.

Lofton, who is also a civil engineer and a carpenter, was inspired to write "The Staircase" 20 years ago after learning about it from a friend who had visited the Santa Fe chapel. For the next two decades, "The Staircase" was optioned as a feature or TV movie. But no one, Lofton says, was looking to do a spiritual film.

But with the success of such inspirational series as CBS' "Touched by an Angel," the networks, Anderson says, "are swinging back to this kind of material. They are making good stories now with heart and emotion."

The plot of "The Staircase" is built on fact, Anderson says. "There are about four things that we actually know," he explains. "They built this church without a staircase. There was a Mother Madalyn who was in charge. We do know he built the staircase without wood indigenous to the area. He came in and built it and left in the middle of the night without getting paid. He was this good Samaritan. They don't know where he came from and where he went."

Though the main protagonist of the film is a Catholic nun, both Anderson and Lofton say "The Staircase" is not overtly religious. "It's about faith," Anderson says. "It's about people understanding each other and people realizing the rights and the wrongs in their life."

Hershey says she was drawn to the project because she never likes to repeat herself. "I'd never played an Irish nun dying of cancer in the Old West. So I decided it was time."

More seriously, she admired the way "The Staircase" treats death and the fact "that it dealt with it in a positive light--that death may not be such a frightening place, but a place of relief and release."

The actress, who received an Oscar nomination last year for "The Portrait of a Lady," was also attracted to Madalyn's own personal journey.

"She has her own faults," Hershey explains. "It's interesting. You think a nun is someone who wouldn't have anything to take responsibility for. But she's human and she has to face all of her humanness and her prejudices and her willfulness and the things she feels bad about. You have to do that before you can forgive yourself. She struggles with her humanness. I think she finally accepts that she's human."

"The Staircase" is also about the love that develops between Mother Madalyn and Joad, Hershey says. "It is what I call love between the cracks."

"We have these neat categories for love, but there are all kinds of love that don't fit into those conventions," the actress observes. "This relationship, to me, was like a gift given to her, because she gets to feel these things before she goes. They both are on a very similar journey and they get to touch each other and make each other stronger. It's a beautiful relationship."

Because the chapel is now a museum, "The Staircase" was filmed at a nearby Indian reservation. Production Designer Fred Harpman made four staircases utilizing the method that architects and carpenters now believe Joad used more than 100 years ago, involving spliced wood, lamination and glue.

Though the real staircase is still strong, curator Brokaw says, only wedding parties are allowed to use it. "The problem is 1,000 [visitors] a day would destroy it," he explains.

Both Anderson and Lofton, though, were given the opportunity to climb the staircase. "I spent so much time with it in my mind that physically seeing it didn't add much to what I already knew," Lofton says. "I could feel the power of the guy who built it. Whoever built it was no ordinary Joe."

But it was more of a mystical experience for Anderson. "As I got to the top of it, I felt a presence that sort of surprised me," he says. "I felt a chill go down my spine."

"The Staircase" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS.

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