The Tears of a Clown

Now if there's a smile upon my face…

The Italian Chapel, Orkney

Orkney is a group of seventy islands some ten miles off the coast of Caithness in the Highlands of Scotland, twenty of which are inhabited. I have to confess to a slight fascination, if not affinity to Orkney as my late father went to work as a young man on the submarine base, Scapa Flow there, though I have little knowledge of his time on the islands in his days before he joined the Merchant Navy just prior to WWII.

The Italian Chapel, Orkney

Although visiting the Highlands and Islands of Scotland many times, I have never yet managed to make the sojourn to Orkney and that is to my regret. For a comparatively small place, The islands of Orkney have much to offer the visitor, including some of the finest examples of Neolithic dwellings such as Skara Brae and various monuments. Once under Norwegian rule, Orkadians still refer to the major island in Orkney as ‘the mainland’ as opposed to the Scottish mainland.

The afore-mentioned Scapa Flow has been a natural harbour since the days of the Vikings and has a too remarkable history to be merely glanced through here. Today I want to concentrate on a building, built with much love and faith, that has become a visitor attraction over the decades since WWII, The Italian Chapel which sits on a barren hillside on the island of Lamb Holm.

Orkney saw some 550 Italian prisoners captured in North Africa brought to it’s shores in 1942 and Camp 60 consisted of 13 huts and became the Italian POW’s home until 1945. The Italians looked after their new ‘home’ creating concrete paths and flower gardens whilst one prisoner, Domenico Chiocchetti created a statue of St. George fighting the dragon which still stands to this day. The statue was ingeniously crafted by barbed wire covered with concrete – two of the main resources available to the prisoners.

One resource not available to the Italian prisoners was that of a chapel and after consultation by a new camp commandant, Major Buckland and the camp padre, Father Giacombazzi, it was decided that two back-to-back Nissen huts would be provided for the purpose. the prisoners themselves would be charged with making the building into a chapel.

Here is the part of the story that I find so touching. The Italians set to, constructing an alter from concrete, painting the glass of the windows. Some items were purchased from the prisoner’s own meagre funds. Chiocchetti himself painted the intricate decorations of the inner walls. A wrought iron screen was engineered by a former iron worker who had spent time in that occupation in the USA whilst other prisoners worked on plasterboarding to make it resemble brickwork. Others created a belfry atop the small chapel and a head of Christ which sat above the doorway.

The ending of the war meant that the finished place of worship was only used for a short time ironically though it soon became a visitor attraction. Domenico Chiocchetti, after staying in Lamb Holm initially to finish his labour of love, kept up his association with the chapel however, firstly through a BBC-funded return to re-paint his masterwork and a few years later on, in 1964, to donate 14 wooden Stations of the Cross.

In 1992 on the 50th anniversary of the inception of the chapel’s construction, eight of the original Italian prisoners of war came back to visit their chapel in an emotional reunion. Sadly Domenico Chiocchetti was not amongst them being too unwell to travel. Domenico passed away in his home town of Moena in 1999 at a grand old 89 years of age. He left the people of his adopted home with a building of rare beauty, one that was built from love.

The Italian Chapel still stands as a testament to peace after those years of conflict and as a symbol of the islanders and the Italian’s kindredship and kindness towards each other despite the rigours or war.

Domenico Chiocchetti, 1910 – 1999

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March 24, 2008 - Posted by | Archives: The Marathon Diaries, On The Road | , , , , , ,

9 Comments »

  1. That’s a lovely story – I’d love to visit Q’s home, Ambleside and then go further North to Scotland but I am terrified of cold weather! I know that both the Lakes and Scotland have so much to offer, but it really is going to take a lot for me to escape the rain to yet more rain!

    Great blogging :)

    Comment by zed | March 24, 2008

  2. Thanks, Zoe. I’ve been enjoying your own blog for some little time now.

    I agree, the tale of the Italian Chapel is a very touching one that more people need to know about. It represents a whole lot of things more than just the beautiful little place of worship that it is.

    Invest in some thermals! I can assure you the Highlands and Islands of Scotland are absolutely breathtaking.

    Comment by Stuart | March 24, 2008

  3. That’s beautiful. It always fascinates me seeing the great lengths to which people will go to glorify God under adverse circumstances.

    Comment by Bernadette | March 25, 2008

  4. How beautiful. I’d love to visit that one day. The dedication of those men shows in the fine work they did for the glory of God.
    We’ve been to Iona once and hope to go again. Iona would like to see ‘her’ island again and Ronan wants to see the chapel to St Ronan of Iona (not that much remains).

    Happy Easter
    God bless

    Comment by mum6kids | March 25, 2008

  5. Bernadette

    You encompass in one sentence what I see and feel about the story of the Italian Chapel. Many churches I have visited have made me feel very humble at the devotion that has gone into their building. This is as loving a story as I can imagine in that vein.

    Shell

    Like you I would like to visit. I came quite close one time when in John O’Groats but ran out of time sadly.

    You must write and tell us about Iona one time (maybe you already have?)Another place I would dearly like to go to.

    Comment by Stuart | March 25, 2008

  6. on Saturday this week 28/06/08 i will travel to Holm to see the italian Chapel, the only thing more wonderful than this is that my grandfather, Guido Gino Alberto Debonis will be with me, Hewas a P.O W at camp 60 and left there in 1945, this will be his 1st visit back there and im pround to say i will be there with him…..

    Comment by tracy | June 24, 2008

  7. That is so great to hear, Tracy. I hope that it brings back many proud and happy memories for your grandfather, I’m sure it will.

    Have a wonderful trip to Orkney.

    Comment by Stuart | June 24, 2008

  8. My Grandfather was stationed here during 2WW his batman was Domencio Chiochetti, we have in our family a picture in oils , of my mother when she was a little girl painted by Chiochetti, i am coming to Scotland next year for a holiday and will be visiting the beautiful Chapel on LambHolm. Eileen

    Comment by Eileen | September 8, 2008

  9. That must be an extremely treasured heirloom, Eileen. What a wonderful memory of that time for your family.

    I hope you have a terrific stay in Scotland. I’m sure you will.

    Comment by Stuart | September 9, 2008


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