The Italian Chapel, Orkney

  • Orkney
  • Tuesday 28th June 2022

I have put The Italian Chapel in as a single post with a small bit about the Churchill Barriers, as I think it deserves it. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

The Italian Chapel

The Italian Chapel was something I have been wanting to see for sometime now.  I saw a documentary on TV about it and have since read many articles and it tugged at my heartstrings.  For me the Italian Chapel is a symbol of resilience, dedication, hope, comradeship, belief, love, joy, faith and talent and that doesn’t even sum it up. 

On coming here to Lamb Holm and first glimpsing eyes on the chapel on the drive in I felt quite unexpectantly overwhelmed and emotional actually. 

The Italian Chapel

I felt privileged to be able to cast my eyes on something so beautifully created at the worst of times.  Then on entering the Chapel it blew my mind and I was mesmerised by what I saw.  Such beauty behind such brutality.  This will stay with me forever and I would recommend a visit as no pictures, videos or words can explain the feeling of being inside The Italian Chapel and what it stood/stands for, for me it wasn’t really about religion it was about so much more.

The Italian Prisoners of War had built the very road we crossed as they had been here working on the construction of these very barriers.  The barriers now act as causeways connecting the Orkney mainland with the isles of Lamb Holm, Glimps Holm, Burray and South Ronaldsay.

Churchill Barriers

So, these four causeways were built after the sinking of the HMS Royal Oak, more than 80 years ago, while it lay at harbour in Scapa Flow in October 1939.  A German U-boat crawled into Scapa Flow, fired torpedoes at the battleship killing 834 lives.

The disaster prompted then First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, to order the building of the Churchill Barriers to block off the eastern approaches to the naval anchorage of Scapa Flow.

Churchill Barriers

Work on the barriers began in May 1940 and was completed four years later. Much of the labour for this massive engineering project was provided by Italian prisoners of war, held in a camp on the island of Lamb Holm.

We had driven over the first of the Churchill Barriers to access the tiny island of Lamb Holm, on which the chapel stands.

Churchill Barriers with The Italian Chapel in the background

However they were not the only things built by these prisoners of war so for those that don’t know the story I’ll try keep it short and simple.

The Italian Chapel was built by some of the Italian prisoners of war who were stationed on the Island Lamb Holm, and who helped build the Churchill Barriers as mentioned above.

These men, thousand of miles from home deeply felt they needed a place of worship.  Eventually through support they were given two Nissen huts.  These were placed end to end with one meant for a church, the other a school. 

Nissen Huts

Prisoner Domineco Chiocchetti an artist by pre-war profession from Moeno, a small town in the Dolomite Mountains, Italy took charge of the beautification project and even constructed a statue of St George Slaying the Dragon out of barbed wire covered by cement.   This presided over the camp ‘square’. 

St George Slaying the Dragon, made by Chiocchetti
Check out the detail!!!

Chiocchetti gathered a team of craftsmen together including Giuseppe Palumbi, a blacksmith and Domenico Buttapasta, a cement worker and began work on the sanctuary. 

The Sanctuary
Concrete alter and ‘rails’
More ‘rail’ made from concrete!

Chiocchettii’s imagination and enthusiasm only inspired his fellow Italians.  After completing their daily required labor on the barriers the prisoners used their downtime to work on the chapel.

A Masterpiece
The ceiling
Wrought iron gates took 4 months to make

The men covered the outside of the Nissen huts with concrete hiding the ugly corrugated iron and later coated them with bituminous felt and with a concrete facade they formed the porch concealing the iron huts beneath and with a belfray and ornamental Greek pinnacles they transformed it into the shape of a tiny church. 

Back of The Chapel
The Italian Chapel

The inside they transformed into a tiny basilica-style space.  The Chapel is simply innovative in its design. 

Walls painted to look like brickwork

All the work was expressed in terms of the simplistic materials – building materials had to be scavenged from second-hand worthless scrap, wood from a wrecked ship, and concrete sculpted with loving skill and care.  The men must have dug deep into their imaginations and ingenuity.

Not real stained glass windows, just plain glass painted, to give the same effect.
Painted glass window

Other clever features include light holders hanging from the ceiling made from corned beef tins.

Light holders, made from corned beef tins
The Sanctuary
The floor tiles were also taken from the blockship

The brass candlesticks on either side of the alter are made from decorative fittings taken from the blockships stairs. These were the ships that were sunk between the islands to prevent German U-boats from getting into Scarpa Flow.

Scrap metal and old wood
Metal taken from the staircase of the sunken blockship

The wood for the wall linings and the tabernacle also came from a blockship.

Chiocchetti carried with him a small prayer card, depicting an image of the Madonna and Child by Nicolo Barabino, that he had been given by his mother before leaving his home in Italy.  It was on this that Chiocchetti based his painting above the chapel alter.

Madonna and Child

The baptismal font was created from the inside of a car exhaust covered in a layer of concrete. This was the last piece that Chiocchetti made for the Chapel.

Baptismal Font. Check out the detail in the paintwork also which is to resemble bricks

The Chapel was only in use for a short time in May 1945 and before it was completly finished the prisoners were released shortly before the end of the war.  Chiocchetti remained on the island to finish decorating the chapel, so dedicated to his work which had saved the men from lonliness and despair, now that says something!

The reason behind such creativity in adversity was described as this by a fellow prisoner…

“It was the wish to show to oneself first, and to the world then, that in spite of being trapped in a barbed wire camp, down in spirit, physically and morally deprived of many things, one could still find something inside that could be set free”….

After the war all of the camp buildings were removed apart from the Chapel and the statue of St George.

Another story which is less mentioned but one that is also touching and I’ll mention briefly was a different kind of love story and one which involved Giuseppe Palumbi.

Palumbi met a young local woman called Barbara during the construction of the chapel as he was allowed to travel to Mainland Orkney to gather materials (he was confident at speaking the local language), and fell in love.  Giuseppe was already married.

When the war ended, rather than fight repatriation he took the heartbreaking decision to return home to his wife and family.   He took with him a single memory, a photograph of his Orcadian girl.  He left behind his heart, not only in the romantic form but also in a very tangible form, a small delicate wrought iron heart on the floor of the Chapel where the gates of the sanctuary screens close together.

Can you spot the heart on the floor?

Palumbi left this message for the young Orkney woman right there,  in the middle of the chapel.

Wrought Iron Heart

Palumbi told his wife, Pierina, about the girl and showed her the photograph. She snatched the photograph out of his hand and threw it on the fire.

It seems that Giuseppe Palumbi, who was a very private man, was haunted by his time in Orkney, and by the memory of the chapel and the beautiful creation that he had left behind.  He spoke to his daughter years later about what had happened whilst he was there and she was so moved by his story she named her daughter Barbara after his Orcadian girl.

He always wanted to return to Orkney, but he never did. He died in 1980, aged 69. 

This first class visit to the Italian Chapel was such an overpowering experience and something I will always treasure.  I hope my photos can do it proud.

A photo taken in 1944 with the two men chiefly responsible for its construction:- Dominico Chiochetti, on the left, Giuseppe Palumbi on the right (responsible for the wrought iron work)
🇮🇹 💙 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿

I tried taking a short video to capture the chapels beauty. Hope you enjoyed it above 👆💙🙏

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