The Italian Chapel
In 1942, during the Second World War, 550 Italian Prisoners of War were brought to Orkney from North Africa. Two hundred were based at Camp 60 on the island of Lamb Holm to work on the Churchill Barriers. Protesting that this was helping the war effort, the prisoners went on strike. A new camp Commander, Italian-speaking Major TP Buckland resolved the situation when he met with the camp leaders and explained to them they were building causeways to link the islands with the mainland and this would bring great benefits to the local people. Happy with this explanation, work soon resumed.
When not working on the Barriers, the prisoners kept themselves busy by improving their living conditions. There was never a shortage of concrete and the prisoners were welcome to use this material in any way they wanted after the day’s work had ended. They improved their living quarters by creating paths around their barracks. Flower beds and vegetable plots were created and tended with seeds and bulbs often being donated by local people.
They formed a football team and often competed against the prisoners who were stationed at the camp in Burray. A theatre with painted scenery was created and they put on plays and musicals. In addition, they created a recreation hut, which housed a billiard table made of concrete, complete with concrete balls, while camp blankets formed the cushioned sides.
One thing they really wanted was a chapel. Nights were long, dark and cold and thoughts would turn to home and loved ones. They wanted a place in which they could worship. In 1943 a new commander was put in charge of the camp. TP Buckland and father Giacombazzi, the camp priest, agreed that the camp was in need of a chapel. The British Authorities arranged for two Nissen huts to be transported to the island and these were joined together. One end was to be used as a school, while the other would form the chapel. Balfour Beatty donated the concrete that was used for the foundations.
Many of the prisoners were extremely skilled, and soon they set to work to create one of the most loved buildings in Orkney. Domenico Chiocchetti was an artist in times of peace and he designed the interior of the chapel. The interior at the east end was covered in plasterboard to hide the corrugated iron. With donations of paint and brushes he quickly transformed the hut into a place of worship.
When Chiocchetti marched off to war his mother gave him a prayer card, which he always carried with him. It depicted the Madonna of Olives and he used this as inspiration when he created a portrait of the Madonna and child, which was painted on to the plasterboard behind the altar. Baby Jesus is depicted holding an olive branch as a symbol of peace. Mary is surrounded by cherubs, while the sanctuary vault was decorated by the painting of Seraphim and Cherubim and the symbols of the four evangelists.
All available material was used in the building. The altar was constructed of the concrete left over from the work at the Barriers, while the tiles in the altar were rescued from one of the sunken blockships. Wood was obtained from a wrecked ship and was transformed into the tabernacle. The intricately carved lanterns were fashioned from Bully Beef tins. Reinforcing rods from concrete blocks were used to shape the rood screen and candlesticks were made from the brass stair rods of a blockship.
Another prisoner, Palumbo, was a foundry worker in America before the war broke out and he spent four months making the beautiful wrought iron screen.
As the chancel took shape it was decided that the rest of the hut should be made into a nave. More plasterboard was found and the entire interior was now covered and painted to represent brickwork. Windows of painted glass added light to the building.
Now that the interior of the building was almost complete, the prisoners wanted the entrance to reflect the beauty within. Bruttapasta was renowned for his work with cement and he helped createthefront façade, which helped to conceal the shape of the Nissen hut. Cement pillars were erected with a belfry ornamented with gothic pinnacles. Pennisi moulded the head of Christ in red clay. He also made the water stoop out of concrete.
When the prisoners left the island on 9 September 1944, the work was not quite complete. Chiochetti decided to remain behind to complete the work to the front. When finished, a special service was held, which incorporated the bells and Choir of St. Peter's in Roma, which was provided by gramophone records in the vestry.
When the war ended no one was prepared to destroy the chapel, which was now known as The Italian Chapel and was fondly regarded by Orcadians. The Lord Lieutenant of Orkney, Mr PN Sutherland Greame, gave the prisoners a promise that the chapel would be cherished by the Orkney Islanders and in 1958 on the initiative of Father J Ryland Whitaker, SJ, a preservation committee was formed.
Today, the chapel stands as a testimony to the hard work and skills of these men who were imprisoned on a lonely island far away from their homes and their families during the Second World War. It is a place of inspiration and the dedication of the men who created this wonderful building from second-hand materials and scrap is testimony to the spirit of mankind.
The other Italian Chapel
The Italian Prisoners of War were split into two camps. Camp 60 was situated on Lambholm while Camp 34 were situated at Warebanks, Burray. There was a chapel here too but it was demolished after the second World War ended.