The ancient Alsatian monastery of Mont Sainte-Odile is home to secret passages and mysteriously vanishing books. In 2000, people began to notice that some of the abbey’s ancient manuscripts were disappearing.
To the monks of Mont Saint-Odile, perched high in the Vosges mountains, it seemed like the work of the devil. During nearly two years of doubt and mystification, 1,100 ancient books disappeared from the monastery library without any trace of a break-in.
Sometimes, one was missing. Other times, a dozen. The locks were changed three times. The windows were sealed. But the thefts continued. Some began to suspect that there was a secret entrance to the monastery.
A former professor of the library, Stanislas Gosse had figured out the location of the passage from a magazine article about an old lost map – which had hinted at a hidden room where senior abbey members had once used for spying.
He had found the route after discovering the forgotten map in public archives which revealed the secret access from the monastery attic.
Inside the library, Gosse spent hours by candlelight picking out volumes, some of which he stored in the attic.
In an atmosphere of general suspicion among the nuns and monks of Mont Saint-Odile, the librarian, Alain Donius, called the police to report that entire shelves had been cleared.
A two-year search yielded no results until a gendarme leaned against a bookshelf that opened a plank and revealed a hidden room. Officials installed a camera and waited. That night, they caught former professor Stanislas Gosse red-handed.
The map was a key exhibit in the trial. The attic, reached by a daring climb up exterior walls, led to a steep, narrow stairway and then the secret chamber. A hidden mechanism opened up the back of one of five cupboards in the library. The plans suggested that the secret route to the library, once the monastery’s common room, served in medieval times to spy on the monks’ conversations.
Police recovered all 1,100 missing books dating back to the 15th century from the scholar’s apartment.
In his flat, they discovered he had, on some books, carefully covered up the monastery’s bookplates with his own personal labels.
Gosse’s counsel, Cathy Petit, said her client had taken great care of the books and even restored some of them. She requested he got a community service sentence to help the monks catalogue their treasures, but the judge added fines and damages of 17,000 euros (£11,835) to the suspended prison term.
The public prosecutor, Jean Dissler, said the archbishop of Strasbourg and Father Donius had forgiven Gosse and they wanted him to continue as a teacher, a request granted by the court. They have also told him he can come back to the library – but only through the front door.