A labour of love, exquisite artistic skill and craftsmanship transformed World War II nissen huts into a stunning Italian chapel on the isle of Lambholm.
The distinct white and red facade of the little church on Lambholm has become affectionately known as The Italian Chapel.
Prisoners of war, captured during the North African campaign of the Second World War were stationed at Camp 60 on this tiny island just between North Ronaldsay and Burray. They spent their days working on the Churchill Barriers, a massive series of concerete barriers which seal the eastern approaches to Scapa Flow.
The camp consisted of thirteen or more cheerless huts but the Italians soon transformed the area by planting flowers and
making concerete paths. Domenico Chiocchetti made a figure of St. George by building the framework from barbed wire and covering it with cement. They created a theatre with scenery and a recreation hut, but an important feature was still missing… a chapel.
Circumstances were to bring the artist Domenico Chiocchetti together with a new Commandant Major T.P Buckland and an enthusiastic padre, Father P. Gioacchino Giacobazzi. The idea of building a chapel saw reallity but what nobody could have forseen was the creation that took place at the hands of Chiocchetti and his fellow prisoners.
In late 1943 two nissen huts were joined end to end and Chiocchetti set about building a sanctuary at one end, even the lack of available materials could not hinder his artistic talent. Second hand materials and worthless scrap were turned into a masterpiece.
Chiocchetti gathered a small band of helpers including Palumbi; a Smith, Primavera and Micheloni; electricians, Buttapasta; a cement worker and others. Between them they created the alter, rail and holy water stoop from concrete and the tabernacle from shipwrecked wood. Palumbi forged two candelabra from iron and Primavera made four in brass. Behind the altar, reaching to the roof Chiocchetti painted his masterpiece of the Madonna and Child (from a holy picture he had carried with him throughout the war).
Two painted glass panels flank the Maddona and Child depicting St Francis of Asisi and St Catherine of Siena. He frescoed the santuary vault with symbols of the four evangelists and on either side, lower down, he painted two Cherubim and two Sepraphim with a white dove in the very centre of the vault.
Palumbi was asked to make a rood-screen and gate in wrought iron, this took four months to complete. Needless to say, that the rest of the hut looked stark in comparison, so the camp Commandant managed to secure enough plasterboard to cover the interior of the entire hut. Chiochetti decided that this interior should be covered with patterns resembling brickwork with a dado imitating carved stone. A painter was sent from another camp to work under Chiocchetti’s instruction as this feat was too great for one man to complete.
A grand interior needed an exterior to match, so with the help of Buttapasta, an impressive facade was erected to hide the ugly outline of the nissen hut. An archway flanked by cement pillars was surmounted with a belfry and ornamented with gothic pinnacles. Widows of decorated glass added lightness and Pennisi moulded a thorn crowned head of Christ in red clay.
The prisoners left the island on 9th September 1944, but Chiochetti remained to complete the font which he had previously started. When the chapel was nearly finished a special service was held, incorporating the bells and Choir of St peter’s in Rome, provided by gramophone records in the vestry.
Lord Lieutenant of Orkney, Mr. P.N. Sutherland Greame, gave the prisoners a promise that the chapel would be cherished by the Orkney Islanders and in 1958 on the initiative of Father J. Ryland Whitaker, S.J., a preservation committee was formed. In March 1960 the committee dream came true, when Domenico Chiocchetti (expenses met by the BBC) visited the island for three weeks and during this stay assisted in some of the repairs and restoration of the paintwork.
A service conducted by Father Whitaker was attended by many Orcadians and Domenico Chiocchetti was the first to receive Holy Communion. Parts of this service were broadcast in the Italian National programme on Easter Monday 1960. On the last Sunday of Signor Chiocchetti’s visit, a service of rededication in the chapel was attended by two hunderd Orcadians. Father Whitaker chose as his text;
“And his work shall be made manifest to all”
In a letter to the people of Orkney, before Signor Chiocchetti left Kirkwall, he said;
“Dear Orcadians, my work at the chapel is finished. In these three weeks I have done my best to give again to the little church that freshness which it had sixteen years ago.
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 you always and my children shall learn from me to love you.
I thank the authorities of Kirkwall, the courteous preservation committee, and all those who directly or indirectly have collaborated for the success of this work and for having given me the joy of seeing again the little chapel of Lambholm where I, in leaving, leave part of my heart.
Thanks also in the name of all my companions of Camp 60 who worked with me.
Goodbye dear friends of Orkney – or perhaps I should just say “au revoir”.
Signor Chiocchetti returned again in 1964, this time with his wife Maria. They brought with them a gift of 14 stations of the cross, carved by hand in Cirmo wood and these have now been fixed to the chapel walls.
Chiocchetti’s home town of Moena followed the work with pride and in 1961 the townspeople donated the carved figure of the crucified Christ which was erected in the form of a wayside shrine beside the chapel.
A group of the prisoners of Camp 60 returned in 1992, but Signor Chiocchetti was this time too frail to attend. His daughter Letizia and her husband attended in his place.
Signor Chiocchetti died on 7th May 1999 at his home town of Moena and on 9th June 1999 a Memorial Requiem Mass was held at the Italian Chapel at which his wife and daughters were in attendance. He asked them to “say goodbye to the friends in Orkney”.
Today, many tourists make their way to this little church which is the only remaining part of Camp 60.
The letter excerpt and quotations are taken from the Chapel handbook “Orkney’s Italian Chapel” also written in Italian “La chiesetta italiano di orkney”.
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