On 18 May 2014 a special mass was held at the Italian Chapel on Orkney. As editor of insideMoray I would urge anyone who has never visited this little miracle to do so if at all possible. I’m not a catholic, not even particularly religious – but my own visit there almost 20 years ago had a profound affect, and prompted the following article to be written for the Caithness Courier. I felt it fitting to repeat it here on the 70th anniversary of those responsible for ‘the Miracle of Lambholm’ leaving the Islands to return to Italy via England.
When Domenico Chiocchetti left his homeland for North Africa to fight in Mussolini’s army, he could hardly have guessed that he was set upon a path which would eventually make him a folk hero in the eyes of a war-hardened Scottish Island community in Orkney.
More than fifty years after his capture and ultimate incarceration in a British prisoner of war camp the legacy left by Domenico, the miracle that is the Italian chapel of Lambholm, captivates visitors to the Orkney Islands.
Largely unmanned and open to the public it was never known exactly how many people have visited the chapel, until that is an “electronic eye” was put in place at the entrance.
This revealed that in the first six months the chapel received in excess of 10,000 visitors a month – and that has held firm, as in 2014 the chapel is the top tourist attraction in Orkney with over 100,000 visitors each year.
The Orkney Islands are blessed with a natural beauty, but the ravages of the weather in this part of the world has left its own mark upon the landscape.
For Italian POWs shipped to Orkney in 1943, the future must have appeared bleak, with no hope whatsoever of escape even for those in their number who held any ambition to do so.
Domenico and his fellow prisoners were taken to Lambholm and accommodated in a bleak group of ‘Nissen’ huts (an oval corrugated iron construction, offering some shelter from the winds which ravage these islands, but little in the way of warmth). At its peak Camp 60 housed some 200 Italian prisoners of war.
The Italians made the most of their surroundings. They laid concrete pathways between their huts, and planted flowers and shrubs by the verge – transforming the bleak appearance of the camp.
While not readily available materials were obtained by the prisoners from the works they were helping to put into place on what was to become known as the ‘Churchill Barriers’. Until the second world war there had been four channels into the naval anchorage at Scapa Flow, all thought to be impregnable.
Early in 1939, however, a German U-Boat found a gap in the defences at Holm Sound during an exceptionally high tide. The U-Boat torpedoed and sank the British battleship Royal Oak, killing over 800 crew.
A harsh lesson had been learned and Winston Churchill ordered that the Scapa Flow anchorage should be abandoned until such time as it was once again made a secure and safe haven for the Royal Navy.
Engineers set about the enormous task of sealing all the entrances, deciding that the only way it could be done was to construct barriers of stone and concrete on the sea bed from each of the small islands surrounding the anchorage.
The task was to take several years, the total length of the barriers being over one and a half miles and in places to a depth of 59ft.
The ingenuity and artistry of the Italians not only helped build an inter-island barrier system that to this day provides a vital road link for Orcadians but in addition created a number of works of art carved from the simplest of materials.
Domenico first created a sculpture, a figure of St George, to be placed in the centre of the camp. Using a framework of barbed wire which he covered with cement the statue stands to this day on a hill overlooking the barriers. Within its base is a scroll containing the names of all the prisoners held at Camp 60 along with a few Italian coins.
The true miracle of Lambholm came about through a fortunate set of circumstances. The prisoners, who had already demonstrated their willingness to work hard not only on the barriers but to improve their own living conditions, longed for one thing – a chapel.
A new camp commandant arrived, Major T P Buckland, who was happy to listen to the plea of the Italian padre, Father Gioachino Giacobazzi. Major Buckland made available two Nissen huts to the prisoners, one to be used as a school and the other as a chapel.
Domenico immediately set to work on the chapel with an artistic imagination that was to be an inspiration to all around him. At his command were materials that were to all intents and purposes useless pieces of scrap, but the determined Italian brought together a team of prisoners with particular skills to aid his task.
Among them were electricians Primavera and Micheloni; Palumbo, a Smith; and Bruttapasta, whose work in cement was renowned.
This small band turned an ugly corrugated iron hut into a thing of consummate beauty. They hid the rough iron behind a plaster-board covering, and moulded in concrete an alter and holy water stoop.
At the rear of the alter reaching up to the roof was Domenico Chiocchetti’s masterpiece, a portrait of the Madonna and child based on a picture carried by Domenico throughout the war. The portrait was buttressed by two windows of painted glass, one representing St Francis of Assisi, the other St Catherine of Siena.
The only items “bought in” for the chapel were gold curtains, placed on the entrances at each side of the chancery, purchased from money held in the prisoner’s welfare fund.
Palumbo created two candelabra in iron while Primavera fashioned four more from brass, while wood from a ship wreck was used to create the tabernacle. Domenico painted two Cherabim and two Seraphim on the sanctuary vault, which he frescoed with the symbols of four evangelists.
Such was the dramatic difference between the completed chancel and the rest of the chapel Palumbo was asked to create a screen to separate the two. Having been a wrought-iron worker in America before the war, he set about the task with amazing skill, completing it in just four months. Today that screen is seen as one of the most beautiful aspects of the chapel.
Over time further refinements were made both to the interior and exterior. Work was still on-going when the prisoners were released in the spring of 1945, Domenico remained behind however to complete the font.
Such were the fortunes of war, the chapel was in actual use for just a very short time, but nevertheless those Orcadians who had watched the amazing developments at Camp 60 were moved to promise that they would care for the chapel when Domenico eventually departed.
Today the Italian Chapel stands proudly alongside the statue of St George on the hilltop at Lambholm, a lasting testimony of the faith and artistry of the Italians who created them. These are all that remain to remind Orcadians of the occupants of Camp 60, other than the Churchill Barriers themselves.
In 1960, Domenico Chiocchetti returned to Orkney and for three weeks carried out preservation work on the chapel, assisted by Orcadian Stanley Hall. On completion, a service was held at which Domenico was first to receive Holy Communion. Part of the service was broadcast by Italian National radio, to the great pride of the people of Domenico’s home town of Moena.
Before he left Orkney in 1960, Domenico wrote an open letter to the people of Orkney. In it, he said “The chapel is yours, for you to love and preserve. I take with me to Italy the remembrance of your kindness and wonderful hospitality. I shall remember always, and my children shall learn from me to love you.”
Domenico Chiocchetti, and his many colleagues from Camp 60, had left behind a work of art cherished to this day by the people of Orkney, proving that even in the darkest days of war, the goodness of mankind can and does shine through.
In July 1996, Domenico Chiocchetti was accorded the freedom of his native town, Moena. At the same time, a document was signed by officials from Moena and Orkney, a declaration reinforcing the ties between the two communities.
This summer the Italian Chapel celebrates it’s 70th Anniversary of the departure of the bulk of those involved in creating the masterpiece. A special mass was held in the Chapel on Sunday, May 18 celebrated by the Papal Ambassador to Great Britain, Archbishop Antonio Mennini, and the former Archbishop of Glasgow, Mario Conti.
During the mass Archbishop Mennini read a message from Pope Francis which read: “Conflict cannot be ignored or concealed. It has to be faced. But if we remain trapped in conflict, we lose our perspective, our horizons shrink and reality itself begins to fall apart.
“In the midst of conflict we lose our sense of the profound unity of reality. The best way to deal with conflict is the willingness to face conflict head-on, to resolve it and to make a link in the chain of a new process.
“His holiness prays that this chapel, built in time of war, may continue to be a sign of peace and reconciliation to all those persons who work for the God-given dignity of each and every human person and he imparts to all those who participate in this pilgrimage a special apostolic blessing as a pledge of abundant graces from heaven while placing them under the protection of our blessed mother of Mary, queen of peace.”