Thanks to Clement Clarke Moore and Coca-Cola, many people associate this time of year with images of a jolly man adorned in red sliding down a chimney to surprise youngsters with the bounty of his benevolence. Unfortunately, for the nuns and monks at a monastery in eastern France in the early part of the 2000s, the visitor coming down was neither mythical nor in the giving spirit.
The Mont Sainte Odile Abbey is located high in the Vosges Mountains in Alsace, about 15 miles from the German border. Originally founded in the seventh century, the current Abbey was constructed in the 1660s. The Abbey and the associated stories of miracles attributed to it and its eponymous Sainte have charmed people for years, including Stanislas Gosse, an instructor in his early 30s at an engineering school in Strasbourg. While doing research about the Abbey in public archives, Gosse came across a story of a secret room that, centuries ago, allowed older members of the Abbey to observe newer members in the common room without being noticed. He also found an old hand-drawn map of the building.
The way the space in the building was used evolved over time, and the former common room became the library, housing thousands of books, including manuscripts unique to the archives dating back as early as the fifteenth century. As one might imagine would happen with a 350 year-old Abbey, knowledge of the secret chamber and the passage leading to it faded. But with his newly-found map, Gosse knew the secret.
According to various reports, Gosse performed reconnaissance of the layout of the buildings during a stay at the hotel on the grounds of the Abbey. Then, in August 2000, the teacher-turned-thief rode his bike to the Abbey armed with a length of rope. During the night, he scaled the exterior of the building to enter the attic above the library, where he found the forgotten passage that descended to the secret chamber. From the secret room, Gosse figured out how to work a hidden mechanism that caused one of the book cabinets to move, allowing him unsupervised access to the library.
Perusing the shelves for hours by candlelight, Gosse took as many books as he could carry and left the way he came, via the secret passage. He then loaded the books onto his bicycle and returned home. From August 2000 until May 2002, the thief returned to the Abbey multiple times, each time spending hours by candlelight pilfering books from the shelves to add to his collection. Staff at Mont Sainte Odile, including Alain Donius, the librarian, knew there was a thief. The simple measures the staff took to stop the thefts – changing locks, reinforcing the doors, and blocking windows – did not put an end to the disappearing materials, so Donius called the police.
Initially, during the police investigation, books and documents continued to disappear from the Abbey’s library. Police decided the best way to catch the perpetrator was to use a surveillance camera. On Sunday, May 19, 2002, Gosse returned to the scene of his multiple thefts and this time, police saw how he carried out the thefts. Gosse was quickly arrested on the Abbey grounds with a rope ladder, a backpack, and three suitcases filled with approximately 300 books from the Abbey. Immediately following the arrest, police searched Gosse’s apartment and found nearly 1,100 books on Gosse’s shelves – he told police he was never tempted to sell any of the books. After the investigation, all of the books were returned to the library.
At his trial the following year, Gosse pleaded his case as a bibliophile. He told the court, “I’m afraid my burning passion overrode my conscience. 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 any more. There was also the thrill of adventure – I was very scared of being found out.” His lawyer argued that he should be spared jail time and instead he should perform community service helping the Mont Sainte Odile staff catalog their documents and books. The judge agreed and added a €17,000 penalty.
So as you think about St. Nick entering houses from rooftops with a sackful of gifts, keep in mind the misery of those at Mont Sainte Odile, who had a visitor come down from the roof and leave with more than just cookies and milk.
For more about this story see:
Geoff Manaugh, “Inside Jobs,” Cabinet Magazine, Issue 58, Summer 2015
“Secret Passages of Mont Sainte-Odile,” Atlas Obscura
Paul Webster, “Mystery at the monastery ends as CCTV reveals chamber of secrets’ daring thief,” The Guardian, June 18, 2003