The Secret Tunnels and Missing Manuscripts of Mont Sainte-Odile Abbey
The ancient monastery of Mont Sainte-Odile in the French region of Alsace is steeped in mystery. From secret tunnels to the strange disappearance of more than 1,000 ancient books, it has many a story to tell over its 1,300-year history.
The Legend of Odile
According to legend, Odile, whom the Abbey is named after, was the daughter of the Duke of Alsace and was born blind. Her father was disgusted by his female and handicapped child. Her mother, not wanting to kill the child, brought her stealthily to the nearby town of Palma. There the young girl was to be raised by a peasant family. Yet one night, an angel was said to have guided Saint Erhard of Regensburg to Palma. The bishop baptized Odile whereupon her sight was miraculously restored. The story spread rapidly throughout the region and soon, Odile’s younger brother Hughes came to see if it was true. Reunited, Hughes and Odile gleefully returned to their parent’s estate. However, the Duke was so angry to see Odile that he accidentally killed Hughes. Sainte Odile revived her brother then quickly fled across the Rhine. The enraged Duke gave chase, following her up a steep cliff. Odile scrambled up the rocks with ease, however, her father was not so nimble. He fell and was pummeled by falling rocks – gravely injured but alive. Compassionate Odile descended and helped the Duke get home, staying on afterward to nurse him back to health. As he revived, his anger subsided and he came to love Odile. He established the Mont Sainte-Odile Abbey at the peak of the Vosges mountain range in her honor in around 690 AD. Odile was the Abbess there until her death in 720. She and her father are both buried in the Abbey.
Mont Sainte-Odile and the Monastery. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Abbey’s history continued to be spectacular; it was destroyed several times including once by lightning in 1572. Each time it was rebuilt and today it still remains active, with a hotel and restaurant to accommodate tourists and pilgrims.
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The Case of the Missing Books
In August 2000, books began to go missing from the library at Mont Sainte-Odile. Suspicion abounded among the monks and nuns of the Abbey; many suspecting that it was none other than the librarian, Father Alain Donius. The locks were changed, windows sealed, guards posted, and yet still the books continued to vanish.
“There was no sign of a break-in, yet our library was gradually being emptied," said the librarian Father Alain Donius. "I thought to myself, 'One day I'll come in and there'll be nothing left'.”
“Quite extraordinary items were vanishing, sometimes singly, sometimes by the dozen,” said Madeleine Simoncello, the Saverne public prosecutor. “It was really a perfect mystery. The convent had the locks changed once, then a second and a third time, and the windows sealed. The thefts stopped for a while, then started again this Easter. That's when we started thinking seriously about the possibility of another entrance.”
It would be nearly two years before the thief was discovered and the mystery of the vanishing manuscripts explained.
Inside the chapel at Mont Sainte-Odile (public domain)
Floorboards were removed, wall panels tapped, ceiling tiles inspected, but no secret door revealed itself. Finally, by sheer luck, a local gendarme leaned against one of the bookshelves. A plank swung open and exposed a small, sealed off room. Finally knowing how the thief entered the library, all that remained was to find out who it was and to catch him.
“We installed a video camera in the hotel workshop and he was caught in the act that same night,” said Ms. Simoncello. “He was an amateur student of Latin and he had a passion for these ancient books, but I'm afraid he didn't have the right to take them.”
The Thief of Mont Sainte-Odile Abbey
Stanislas Gosse, 32, used to be a professor living in nearby Strasbourg. He had long been enamored by the Abbey’s colorful history and myriad miracles. An article in a little read specialist magazine featuring Mont Sainte-Odile Abbey referenced a supposed hidden room from whence the senior Abbey residents could spy on the younger while they relaxed in their chapter room. Using information about the Abbey found in the public archives, Gosse quickly identified the spied-upon common area and deduced where the secret passage lay.
In August 2000, he packed a coil of rope and rode to the Abbey on his bicycle. To get to the secret chamber, Gosse began in the hotel lobby. He slipped into a disused corridor between the visitors’ area and the Abbey itself. Then, he ascended a narrow staircase that led to a spot outside where he could climb up the exterior walls of the cliff face to a small, sealed off room – the lair of the eavesdroppers. Once inside, Gosse found himself in the Abbey’s private library- off limits to the public – full of rare, one-of-a-kind manuscripts dating back to the 15th century. Alone, Gosse lit candles and read the dusty, forgotten tomes for hours undisturbed. When it was time to leave, strolling out with the last of the restaurant’s guests, Gosse could not resist taking a book or two with him. Soon, he came back for more. And then more still. By the time he was caught, Gosse had purloined over 1,100 texts.
In May, 2002, Gosse was caught red-handed carrying two suitcases containing 300 books. Back at his apartment, the police found all of the missing manuscripts, well cared for and neatly lined up on shelves. Gosse had not even attempted to sell the books, knowing full well that such rare texts would be identified immediately. The value of the works was “incalculable, quite literally priceless because they were unique. They would have been instantly recognized by any expert,” said Cannon Charles Diss, a former director of the abbey.
“I'm afraid my burning passion overrode my conscience,” Gosse told the court during his 2003 trial. “It may appear selfish, but I felt the books had been abandoned. They were covered with dust and pigeon droppings and I felt no one consulted them anymore. There was also the thrill of adventure — I was very scared of being found out.”
Many historic libraries around the world are known to have secret passageways, like this one at San Jose State University Library (Jessamyn West / Flickr)
Charged with “burglary by ruse and escalade,” Gosse faced up to five years in prison. His lawyer, Cathy Petit, argued to the judge that Gosse did not deserve such a harsh punishment because he took great care of the books and even worked to restore some of them. Plus, in the end, all were returned to the Abbey. The judge agreed to suspend Gosse’s prison sentence. Instead, the court ordered that Gosse, along with paying a fine of €17,000 ($20,010.70), had to serve a community service sentence helping the monks catalog and restore the books.
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Father Donius and the other residents of Mont Sainte-Odile have forgiven Gosse and are glad he can realize his passion for the Abbey in a law-abiding way. Gosse will stay on with the Abbey as a teacher, a request granted by the court. The secret passage has been sealed.
Top image: Monastery at Mont Sainte-Odile. (Public Domain)
Atlas Obscura. "Secret Passages of Mont Sainte-Odile." Atlas Obscura. Atlas Obscura, 2016. Web. http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/secret-passages-of-mont-sainte-odile
Henley, Jon. "Police Baffled by Disappearance of Priceless Work." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 24 May 2002. Web. 19 Sept. 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/may/24/internationaleducationnews.humanities
Jacobson, Philip. "Secret Passage Used to Strip French Abbey of Rare Books." The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 16 June 2002. Web. 19 Sept. 2016. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/1397450/Secret-passage-used-to-strip-French-abbey-of-rare-books.html
Webster, Paul. "Mystery at the Monastery Ends as CCTV Reveals Chamber of Secrets' Daring Thief." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 18 June 2003. Web. 19 Sept. 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/jun/19/france.paulwebster