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