Scottish author Philip Paris continues the story of how the famous Italian chapel in Orkney, off the north coast of Scotland, came to be created during the Second World War. Part 1 of this story can be read here.

The Italian POW camp on the tiny Orkney island of Lamb Holm welcomed its first priest in September 1943 with the arrival of Father Gioacchino Giacobazzi, who was known as Padre Giacomo. He had been captured by the British army while helping at a field hospital in Soddu, Ethiopia, and ended up in Edinburgh along with 30 other priests who were to be allocated to various POW camps around the country.

One of the many previously unknown stories that came to light during more than four years of research was that, at the moment of being captured, Padre Giacomo rescued the Italian flag flying above the hospital and he still had this with him, hidden at the bottom of his satchel, when he arrived many months later in Orkney!

His presence was the catalyst for the creation of the chapel and shortly afterwards the helpful camp commander, Major Buckland, sourced two Nissen huts. These semi-circulator structures, made of corrugated iron sheets fixed to a framework, were relatively inexpensive to make and could be transported easily in sections then assembled on site, so they became a common feature of the British landscape during the Second World War.

Towards the end of November the huts, emptied of their contents, were moved to Camp 60 and placed end-to-end just inside the gates to make one larger building. The concrete for the new foundations had been donated by Balfour Beatty, the giant construction company behind the project to build the Churchill Barriers, the reason why some 1,200 Italian POWs had landed in Orkney in February 1942.

Apart from cement the Italians had little in the way of materials, but they overcame this hurdle with faith, determination and sheer ingenuity. Used bully beef tins were turned into lanterns, the brass stair rods of a part sunken ship were used to create candlesticks. Several old ships had been sunk in an effort to block the channels between the islands and these subsequently provided some useful materials such as the tiles for the floor and, later on, wood for the tabernacle. The Italians made trinkets to raise money for a fund to purchase items that could not be made or found.

The original plan was to create a chancel at one end of the now larger hut and leave the remainder unaltered, which would be used as a school room. Firstly, a wooden frame was built on the inside of the walls and plasterboard fixed to it. A stud wall was created to make a sacristy for the priest.

There were many skilled men in Camp 60 and the artist Domenico Chiocchetti made an altar and altar rail out of leftover cement. He painted his masterpiece above the altar of the Madonna and Child and adorned the remainder of the chancel with other religious images.

Madonna with Child - Domenico Ciocchetti
Madonna with Child - Domenico Chiocchetti

To separate this from the rest of the unattractive hut, the blacksmith Giuseppe Palumbi took on the task of building a rood screen, a huge undertaking for one man. Major Buckland agreed that, like Domenico, he could be relieved of ‘barrier duties’ as long as his work was covered by other men. It took Giuseppe four months to complete the rood screen at his forge, which he also had to make!

During my research for the historical fiction The Italian Chapel I tracked down Renato Palumbi, the blacksmith’s son and wrote to him asking if he could provide me with any information about his father that he thought might be relevant. I received a letter from Giuseppe’s grandson, who speaks English, explaining that Renato would write down everything he could and that he, Pino, would translate the text for me as I speak no Italian. And so the chapel was to be the cause of another friendship, just as it had crossed so many boundaries and beliefs all those years ago.

Domenico Ciocchetti and Giuseppe Palumbi
Picture by James W Sinclair - Domenico Ciocchetti (left) and Giuseppe Palumbi (right)

Questions and answers flew back and forward over the following months between Scotland and Italy, with Pino acting diligently as translator. It was during this correspondence that I found out, to my great surprise, Giuseppe had fallen in love with a local woman while he had been a POW in Orkney and that his granddaughter is named after this woman. Until my enquiries this had been kept such a closely guarded family secret that even Pino had not heard this story nor realised the significance of his cousin’s name.

Armed with this startling new information my wife, Catherine, and I made the amazing discovery of the token that Giuseppe had left in the chapel for the woman he loved, but never saw again after he left Orkney in 1944. It was an extremely moving moment. We knew something that no-one else in the world was aware of, unless the lady herself was still alive. I never tracked her down and changed her name in my books to protect her identity. Perhaps, one day, I might yet receive a letter ...

The beautiful rood screen, one of the wonders of the chapel, was the most complex structure Giuseppe ever made and when he was repatriated he took back to Italy a photograph of the inside of the chapel, which he hung on a wall at home. Many years later, Renato wrote the following about his father, who died in 1980:

‘Every single moment his mind went back there, on that ‘rock’, which he thought abandoned, where he had left the proof of how much he was worth. Every time it was as though he wanted to say, ‘Let’s go back and see it’. That picture has always been there, on the wall, and lots of times I have been surprised by my father’s melancholy look. It is possible that a prison becomes so important? I can answer that it’s possible when only there have you been able to express your potential in a complete way.’

By the spring of 1944 the men in Camp 60 had their chapel and Padre Giacomo was no longer holding Mass in the mess hall. However, it wasn’t enough. What had been created so inspired the Italians that they decided to convert the entire building. The regularly held classes were moved elsewhere and the remainder of the inside lined with a wooden frame and yet more plasterboard. An artist, Giovanni Pennisi, was brought over from the Burray camp to help Domenico paint the nave, and with great skill they made the curved walls look like stone and brick as though the smooth surfaces had varying depths.

As this progressed, work was started to build a facade to hide the rather ugly entrance of the Nissen hut. Pennisi produced a design and the stonemason Domenico Buttapasta built it with a team of helpers. When it was finished, Pennisi crafted an extraordinary bas-relief of the head of Christ and fitted it to the facade, just underneath the bell-tower. The only part remaining untouched was the roof, and to make this as watertight as possible the corrugated iron sections were covered with by hand cement.

Orkney Chapel Today

The Churchill Barriers, a total of one and a half miles in length, took four years to build and consumed more than 900,000 tonnes of concrete and rock. Men had been injured and men had died in this quest to complete what was the largest engineering feat of the Second World War. By the summer of 1944 the task was largely finished.

In the end, the chapel was in use for only a short period of time, but there is no doubt of the importance it played in keeping up the morale of despairing men, far from home and the lives they understood, worried desperately about loved ones and friends whom they had not seen in years.

On 9th September the men in Camp 60 were transferred to Yorkshire, where they worked mainly on nearby farms until their return to Italy at the beginning of 1946. Shortly before their departure Padre Giacomo held a service in the chapel and this was attended by Italians, British soldiers, construction workers, Orkney families plus many other civilians. The little building truly was the Miracle of Camp 60.

Holy Water StoupDomenico Chiocchetti remained behind for about a week in order to complete the holy water stoup, the only unfinished task, while a small group of soldiers dismantled the kitchen ranges, beds and other items that could be used in other camps.

After the war ex POW camps were razed to the ground throughout Britain as people tried to return to normality as quickly as possible and one day a demolition team arrived on Lamb Holm. St George OrkneyHowever, these tough men used to tearing down buildings in the shortest possible time were so moved by the chapel that they refused to touch it and, disobeying their orders, when the huts, barbed-wire and all that made up Camp 60 was taken away, the chapel and Domenico’s statue of St George slaying the Dragon were left alone in the field.

There was no-one remaining to love and care for the building and the fierce Orkney winters pounded it unmercifully until the fine details of Pennisi’s head of Christ began to wear away and the concrete roof cracked, letting in water that threatened to destroy the works of art inside. The bell hanging in the bell-tower rang out its warning of impending disaster again and again, but the sound was whisked away in the wind and nobody heard the desperate cry for help ...

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Next week Philip Paris tells of the fate of the Italian chapel. Philip Paris is author of the historical fiction – The Italian Chapel – and the non-fiction Orkney’s Italian Chapel: The True Story of an Icon.