From the outside, the Italian Chapel on Orkney would barely catch your eye. Yet, it is a remarkable building, with a remarkable history. A house of God that is also is a monument to the human spirit.
In January 1942, more than a thousand Italian prisoners of war, captured mainly in North Africa, were brought to Orkney. They were needed to construct the Churchill Barriers – four causeways that today act as links between a number of the southern Orkney islands but were originally designed to block eastern access to Scapa Flow following the sinking of HMS Royal Oak by a German U-boat in 1939.
Around 550 prisoners were sent to Camp 60 on the tiny island of Lamb Holm. Wanting a place of worship, they were encouraged by the British authorities to build it themselves. And so they did.
The chapel was constructed from two Nissen huts joined together end to end. The altar was created from concrete left over from work on the barriers, as was the faced at the front. The baptismal font was made from the inside of a car exhaust covered in a layer of concrete.
Among the prisoners was an artist, Domenico Chiocchetti, who painted the sanctuary end of the chapel. Another prisoner, Giuseppe Palumbi, a blacksmith before the war, spent four months constructing the wrought iron rood screen. Much of the metal came from salvage. He also created lanterns out of corned beef cans.
With the work on the Churchill Barriers complete, the prisoners were shipped out in September 1944. Chiocchetti remained behind for two weeks to complete the font on which he was working. After the war, a demolition team was tasked with taking down the camp. But they refused to touch the prisoners’ chapel.
In their book Bolsters, Blocks and Barriers, which tells the story of the building of the Churchill Barriers, Alistair and Anne Cormack talk to some of the prisoners from Camp 60. One of them Bruno Volpi sums what led them to build the chapel:
What is it that made prisoners of war work so feverishly with partially or totally inadequate means at their disposal? 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.
People cannot be judged by their precarious situations. Their culture, spirit and will to express themselves in creative thoughts and deeds are stronger than my limitation to freedom. This is the spirit that gave birth to the works of art on Lamb Holm.