It doesn’t take long to discern that Santa Fe is a city of believers.
If the shops stuffed with dream catchers, turquoise-encrusted crosses, or healing gemstone bracelets and rings aren’t enough to convince you, then just belly up to the bar at The Shed, the town’s ‘must go’ lunch spot where friendly townsfolk gladly share a story or two with first time visitors, like me.
“Santa Fe is steeped in folklore and ghosts,” said Sam, a lawyer and 20-year resident who insisted I order enchiladas smothered in locally made red and green chili sauce, called “Christmas” if you order it on the same plate.
When I told him I was staying just down the road at the Inn and Spa at Loretto, he shoved a fork full of posole into his mouth nodded. “Well then you might meet Sister George, the cigar-smoking nun who supposedly haunts it.”
Cigar-smoking nuns? Haunting?
The hotel got its name from the Loretto Academy, a catholic girls’ school once located where the hotel now sits, and run by the Order of the Sisters of Loretto. Sister George was a member of the order and taught at the school from 1853 until 1968. She died in El Paso, Texas but supposedly made her way back to Santa Fe. Former hotel employees reported her ‘presence’ in the late ‘70s, smelling cigar smoke in the empty restaurant and receiving phone calls from the fourth floor, which was closed for renovations.
I didn't see any milky-white, transparent figures floating above the zigzag-patterned carpet outside my room, which happened to be on the fourth floor. Nor did I smell any cigar smoke, so I ventured next door to the Loretto Chapel, a gothic edifice that looked more French than southwestern, and built for the Sisters of Loretto. It’s also the site of one of Santa Fe's most famous unexplained mysteries---the Miraculous Staircase.
The chapel was built in 1872 but when the architect and his son died suddenly, it was left with no access to the choir loft, built 20 feet above the nave. After nine days of praying, the Sisters welcomed in a carpenter who offered to complete the staircase, which he did. The swirling helix makes two full turns, using no nails or screws, and has no central support, something that has confounded engineers and architects since. The anonymous builder is said to have disappeared as mysteriously as he arrived, never to be heard from again.
Back at the hotel, I asked a valet and Santa Fe native, Demian, if he’d ever met the benevolent Sister George, or any roving carpenters. He said he had not but added, as if to keep me from dismissing the city's ghostly pedigree as hogwash, " Santa Fe is definitely haunted."
He recounted a story told by a friend of a friend who had worked at La Posada, a well-known hotel and former home of Santa Fe's now most famous ghost, Julia Staab, the wife of a local affluent businessman.
"He went into a room and saw sheets flapping by themselves over the bed," Damien said of his friend's friend.
I never saw flapping sheets, Sister George, or any of the dozens of phantoms said to enchant the streets of Santa Fe. But as I poked through the myriad galleries filled with Native American artifacts, and tried on the copper and silver jewelry, engraved with ancient symbols, and peddled under the wood-beamed portal of the supposedly spirit-inhabited Palace of the Governors, I realized I didn’t need to see them.
These ethereal denizens are as much a part of the city as buffalo skull décor and wellness spas. Characters and stories appear and vanish, like travelers, and it’s in their myth and mystery that Santa Fe’s history is perpetuated.
On the way to The Pink Adobe, ‘The Pink’ to locals who say the restaurant is still haunted by former owner Rosalea, I stumbled upon a cigar shop.
I purchased several to give as gifts to friends, but I think I'll save one for my next visit, and share it with Sister George.