Orkney’s Italian Chapel is a Story of Inspiration and Compassion:
An Italian Chapel in the remote Scottish Orkney Islands sounds like a bizzare occurence, but this little church on Lambholm is one of the Orkney’s famous attractions.
Orkney’s quaint little chapel is the only reminder of Camp 60 where Italian prisoners of war were housed during an episode in World War II. It was built by Italian prisoners of war who were captured during the North African campaign and brought to Orkney to work on the Churchill Barriers, four massive concrete causeways that were intended to prevent the Germans from entering eastern approaches to Scapa Flow.
Camp 60, like many prison camps, was stark and cheerless. Originally, it comprised thirteen huts which the Italian POWs added concrete paths, planted flowers and transformed the area to a brighter place. Domenico Chiocchetti made a figure of St. George from scrap barbed wire which was covered with cement. Other new amenities built included a theatre, a recreation hut which included a concrete billiard table.
After all the improvements, the Italians felt that the camp still lacked something – a chapel. Although the provision of one had been recommended by the War Office Inspector of POW camps, it was months later that anything happened. A fortunate combination of a new camp commandant, an enthusiastic padre and the artistic Chiocchetti gave rise to the idea of building a real chapel. Through the goodwill of the commandant, two Nissen huts were made available to the Italians and it was left to the genius of Chiocchetti and his fellow prisoners to build the chapel from second-hand and scrap material from the Barriers.
Inside the Chapel
The corrugated iron of the Nissen hut was hidden by plaster board, the altar rail and water stoop were designed and moulded from concrete and the lamps were made from corned beef cans. The two windows at the altar are of painted glass with depictions of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Catherine of Siena and the central picture of Madonna and Child. These images were all based on a holy picture that Chiochetti had carried with him throughout the war. Tap on the “brick” wall and you’ll soon notice that they are plaster board, that’s been carefully painted to look like bricks.
After the war, the whole camp was demolished, but the chapel and St. George and his dragon remained. Orcadians who had learned of this beautiful piece of work began visiting it and the Italian Chapel gradually became a place of pilgrimage for anyone holidaying in Orkney. The people of Orkney have also forged a relationship with Chiochetti’s home town of Moena and in 1960, the BBC funded a trip for Mr. Chiochetti to visit his chapel. During his three-week stay, he restored the paintwork of the chapel and did other repairs.
The Italian Chapel tells a touching tale of how determination and inspiration by some POWs and a compassionate camp commandant has created a building that continues to remind us of reconciliation in the British isles. It also brings some 100,000 visitors to the attraction every year.