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The Book Thief of Mont Sainte-Odile

The Book Thief of Mont Sainte-Odile

BY GNAGB . 31 Jan, 2023

In an exceptional and remote setting overlooking the Black Forest and the fertile plains of Alsace, lies a sacred hamlet dedicated to Odile (born c. 662 - c. 720 at Mont Sainte-Odile), the Patron Saint of Alsace. Odile was born blind only to recover her sight after she was baptized. Around the year 690 Odile established a monastery in what was the Hohenbourg castle, gifted to her by her father and which stood on a 760-metre-high peak in the Vosges Mountains, near Strasbourg. Odile became the first abbess of Hohenbourg. Miracles, particularly to do with eye problems were attributed to her. When died her remains were placed in the monastery church which is now a much visited place of pilgrimage.

The monastery is part of the Strasbourg Catholic Archdiocese and a large wing has been converted into a hotel. A substantial religious presence is maintained by local nuns and priests. Daily tours are conducted to sites linked to Odile, and a network of mountain walking trails head off into the surrounding woods, one leading to a ‘Pagan Wall’, constructed in 1000 BC.

When observed from the village of Saverne, at the foot of the mountain, this historic religious landmark merges into a craggy ridge, and when shrouded in mist, the monastery casts a dramatic, magical and mysterious air.

Between the years 2000 and 2002 a real-life mystery enveloped Mont Sainte-Odile, when over 1000 precious medieval books and manuscripts disappeared from the monastery library, without any trace of a forced entry. As the books continued to vanish over the years, the matter was finally reported to the police, who set up CTTV cameras in the library. One evening, while the community were attending a religious service, the police nabbed their man, a local and a passionate book collector and teacher at a school in Strasbourg.

Some years before, the teacher stumbled upon an ancient map revealing secret stairways and chambers leading from what is now the monastery hotel, to a secret moving cupboard, which allowed access to the medieval library. The thief entered the library using his new-found knowledge, filled a suitcase with books, climbed out the way he got in and rode his push bike home.

In a happy ending, the thief was let off with a fine and a suspended prison sentence, provided he undertook a tailor-made community service order, helping catalogue the library books at Mont Sainte-Odile. In practicing what they preach, the local Archbishop and the religious community forgave the man and all of the books were returned in perfect condition. And he kept his day job!  

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