Italian Chapel of Orkney is a lasting symbol of peace
LAMB HOLM ISLAND, Orkneys -- Born out of the darkest days of war, the Italian Chapel of Orkney has become an inspiration of European unity and peaceful co-existence.
On a cold summer day of 1941, a glum group of 550 men were landed on the deserted, windswept beach of Lamb Holm Island in the Orkney archipelago at the far northern tip of Scotland. They were Italian prisoners of war who had been captured in Africa and shipped off to what must have seemed to them the end of the world.
Together with another 500 or so companions who were deposited on the nearby little island of Burray, they were destined to supplement the scanty workforce employed in a titanic task waged against wild northern seas and unpredictable tides to close off the eastern access to Scapa Flow harbour, where the British Home Fleet was based. Just a couple of years earlier a German U-boat had managed to slip past the sunken blocks, submarine nets and other obstacles strewn around the natural access channels and had torpedoed the British battleship “Royal Oak”. Over 830 British seamen died, including 137 boy recruits between the ages of 14 and 18. The disaster had shocked the entire nation and the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, decided that a definite solution had to be found to make the harbour safe for the British fleet. The answer was to be a series of four barriers erected across the narrow sea passages between the islands of Mainland, South Ronaldsay, Lamb Holm and Glimps Holm, that would be strong enough to withstand, not only other incursions by enemy submarines, but also the force of the elements.
The barriers were duly constructed over the following four years, totalling two and a half kilometres of stout bastion walls planted in water up to 18 m deep. Over a million tons of stones and rubble went into the foundations. Roads were created on top, supported by 66,000 gigantic cement blocks, weighing between five and ten tons each.
Seventy years later, the Churchill Barriers are still there, coping steadily with local traffic as well as cavalcades of tour buses carrying cruise ship passengers to visit what has become Orkney's most popular tourist attraction on the uninhabited island of Lamb Holm.
The work on the Barriers started in 1940 but the contractors, Balfour Beatty, had great difficulty in maintaining a steady workforce. With few local men available, they had to rely mainly on Irish labourers, some of whom were suspected of connections with the IRA. The Italian prisoners seemed a better solution.
Initially, however, the Italians did not prove so malleable. Some were convinced Fascists who believed that the German-Italian axis would win out in the end. They stirred up their companions shouting slogans in praise of Mussolini and singing Fascist songs. There were a few foiled escape attempts and a protest strike. The strikers refused to work, claiming that they had been led to believe they would be employed on farms doing agricultural work and instead they were being used to help the enemy war effort – something that was forbidden by the Geneva Convention of 1929. Their complaint was duly forwarded to the Swiss representative of the Protective Powers in London which, however, ruled against the protestors, saying that the British government was not breaking international law as the construction of the barriers would benefit the local communities. To reinforce the argument, the camp commander, Major Tom Buckland, explained to the prisoners that the causeways would also be roads, linking the scattered islands where, at that time, the only means of transportation was by boat and where storms and high seas often left the islanders cut off for weeks without provisions or medical care.
The Italian prisoners, many of whom came from remote mountain villages with similar problems, were won over and settled down, resigning themselves to wait out the war. In Camp 60 on Lamb Holm the confined men set about transforming the bleak area surrounding their huts. They laid out cement pathways and planted flower beds. In their spare time they organized sports competitions, theatrical performances and musical events with instruments they made made out of discarded scrap materials.
One of these prisoners was Domenico Chiocchetti, an artist and craftsman from the small village of Moena in the Dolomites. As news of Mussolini's setbacks and defeats began to trickle through, he attempted to raise his companions' spirits by creating a sculpture of St. George, the patron saint of soldiers, slaying the dragon, using a coating of cement over a skeleton of barbed wire. A jar containing the names of all the prisoners was encased in the plinth under one of the horse's hooves. The statue was set up on the 7th August 1943 in the “piazza” traced out by the prisoners on a piece of flat land in the camp. Less than two months later, Italy capitulated. The war, however, was far from being over.
The statue attracted the attention and admiration of Major Buckland, who was a lover of Italy and spoke a little Italian. Within the limits of camp protocol, Chiocchetti and he became friends.
When a delegation of prisoners asked him to give them a place of worship, he did not hesitate, offering a couple of Nissen huts for the purpose. And this was where Italian ingenuity came into play, transforming the two ugly prefabricated corrugated steel structures that provided basic housing for the internees into the Chapel that continues to attract thousands of visitors to Lamb Holm today. Chiocchetti, with the help of a handful of other prisoners who had specialized skills, set the two huts end to end and transformed them into a work of art. The steel roofs were concealed under a coating of cement, with the help of Domenico Buttapasta, a cement mixer by trade. Other members of his team included Giuseppe Palumbi, a blacksmith and metal worker, two electricians, Primavera and Micheloni and another artist from the neighbouring Camp 34 on Burray Island, Giovanni Pennisi.
The walls of the chancel were covered with plasterboard and a couple of windows were inserted to give light to the interior. Since proper materials were scarce or unattainable, the team improvized. The wood for the tabernacle came from a wrecked ship. Palumbi forged the two wrought iron candelabra on the altar from recovered carpet stair rods. The floor tiles came from the toilets of the blockship “Ilsenstein”. Tinned meat cans were transformed into the fretwork lanterns suspended from the ceiling. The base of the holy water stoup was adapted from a large industrial coiled spring found in one of the workshops. The exquisitely fashioned iron altar gate and rood screen, instead, were made by Palombi from basic material supplied by the Barriers contractor, Balfour Beattie.
The decoration work, however, was undertaken directly by Chiocchetti, using paints and brushes procured for him by his friend Major Buckland. Chiocchetti, like many of his fellow Italians, had no strong political beliefs. A man of peace, he had been content with his simple everyday life in his home village and he had found himself plummeted into the horror of war against his most intimate inclinations. He therefore decided to dedicate the Chapel to the Madonna of Peace, as personified by the “Madonna of the Olive” by 19th century artist Nicolò Barabino. He had carried her image on a holy card in his pocket throughout the years of the war and his imprisonment.
Chiocchetti's altar piece features this Madonna with the Christ child on her knee holding out an olive branch. Around her, he painted a circle of cherubs holding a scroll with the words “Regina Pacis, ora pro nobis” (Queen of Peace, pray for us”). To stress the message he wanted to convey, he showed the last cherub on the right symbolically sheathing its sword. Opposite, on the left, he immortalized his birthplace, Moena, with the cherub carrying a shield showing a boat emerging from a storm into calm waters – this was the town's coat-of-arms. He flanked the altar piece with images of the two patron saints of Italy, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Catherine of Siena. On the ceiling, the Dove of Peace hovers among the symbols of the four Evangelists.
Once the apse was finished, Chiocchetti turned his attention to transforming the nave. Buckland cooperated again by procuring stuccoed panels to line the walls of the adjoining Nissen hut. Pennisi came over from the other camp to lend a hand and they created a trompe d'oeil stone-carved frieze, surmounted by a patterned brickwork effect.
The finishing touches were then made to the exterior, which was hidden behind a stepped-gable facade and a pillared porch topped by a little belfry fitted with a recovered ship's bell.
The prisoners left the island in 1945, but Domenico Chiocchetti stayed on for a few weeks more in order to put the finishing touches to the Italian Chapel. By then it had attracted the interest and admiration of the local people, who had begun to attend services there. The landowner, Patrick Neale Sutherland Graeme, future Lord Lieutenant of Orkney, promised the departing prisoners that he would look after the building and it was fortunate that he took the Chapel under his protection. The rest of the camp was bulldozed, along with similar buildings that had been put up in other camps, such as the Chapel created by Giovanni Pennisi at Camp 34 on Burray Island. Nowadays the Lamb Holm chapel and the statue of St. George are the only surviving reminders of the grim years of war and imprisonment.
Domenico Chiocchetti was to return to Orkney a few times, as a guest of the Preservation Committee that had been set up by the islanders to guarantee the conservation of the Chapel. A warm friendship has developed between the opposite worlds of the Orkney islanders and the Moena villagers of the Dolomites, and even after Chiocchetti died in 1999, at the age of 89, these links have been preserved. The town of Moena gifted the hand-carved wooden crucifix that now stands outside the Chapel, as well as the Stations of the Cross and other ritual items.
Meanwhile, the Chapel continues to draw thousands of visitors. Cruise liners make Kirkwall, the Orkney capital, a regular port of call, with the Italian Chapel a “must” in their sightseeing programmes. Independent tourists, who want to absorb the atmosphere of the so-called “Orkney Miracle” in relative solitude have to take care to avoid the tour coaches trundling over the Churchill Barriers
In the spot where the Camp 60 kitchen once stood, the ticket office has been set up in a replica Nissen hut, a sombre reminder of how the Chapel looked before its transformation. The surrounding landscape is, however, unchanged – the same treeless, windswept, barren landscape that must have seemed so alien to the Italians who were deposited there three quarters of a century ago. By contrast, the Chapel, with its cheerful red and white painted facade, stands out like a welcoming beacon of light and a lasting tribute to one man's ability to create beauty out of adversity.