Among the stories of World War II and the horrors that occurred in the world during the war, there are very few that are inspiring that don’t involve the deaths of soldiers or civilians. However, the construction of the Italian Chapel in Orkney, Scotland is such a story. It is the story of a group of men who, despite being prisoners of war on a frigid island in Scotland, rose above their surroundings and their imprisonment to build a beautiful chapel out of the basic tools that they were allowed.
In 1942 roughly 550 Italian soldiers were captured by the British in Africa and brought to the small island of Lamb Holm in Orkney, Scotland. This POW camp was known as Camp 60. The men of Camp 60 were brought to Scotland to assist in the building of the Churchill Barriers. The Churchill Barriers are four causeways that link the Orkney mainland and the islands of Lamb Holm, South Ronaldsay, Glimps Holm and Burray together. The causeways were meant to keep enemy submarines from entering the Scapa Flow. It was against international law to have POWs work on military projects, but the British made it seem like a civilian project, so it was allowed.
In Camp 60 on Lamb Holm Island, there was an Italian prisoner by the name of Domenico Chiocchetti. Domenico was something of an artist, and he is largely responsible for the two works of art that came to grace the dismal camp. The first is a statue of St. George slaying the dragon. He made this by forming the statue of barbed wire and then covering it in concrete. The statue is still there to this day. The second work of art that was constructed during Lamb Holm’s time as a POW camp is the Italian Chapel.
In the late months of 1943, a new padre by the name of Father Giacombazee came to Camp 60. With the help of Giacombazee, the men of Camp 60 were able to convince the camp authorities to allow them the materials necessary to build a chapel on the island. The British provided the men with two Nissen huts (an easily assembled metal structure used during WWII). The man in charge of the building of the Churchill Barriers donated the concrete needed and a local artist donated paints and paintbrushes.
The two Nissen huts that were provided for the project were joined together to form one larger structure. The structure was going to hold a chapel at one end and a school at the other. The Italian prisoners started with the chapel side. They covered the walls with plasterboard and an altar was constructed out of concrete. Two windows were placed on either side and they were fitted with painted glass. The dedicated prisoners used their own money to buy decorative gold curtains for the altar. Chiocchetti was in charge of painting the interior of the chapel. His work transformed the interior of the structure into a beautiful place of worship. A man named Palumbo constructed a wrought iron rood screen for the chapel as well.
When the men were nearly finished with the interior of the chapel, they turned to the schoolhouse side of the building and began putting up plasterboard there. This time the plasterboard was painted to resemble bricks. After this was finished, it was time to move to the now comparatively drab exterior of the structure. The men set to work on building a facade for the Italian Chapel. When it was complete, one couldn’t tell that the building was made of Nissen huts when viewing it from the front. It could’ve been a typical small chapel in Europe. The rest of the structure was covered in concrete to conceal the metal of the Nissen huts.
When the war ended there were still a few small things that had yet to be completed at the Italian Chapel in Orkney. Domenico made the decision to stay on at Lamb Holm and finish the project after the men were free to go. He completed the chapel and then later Camp 60 was slated for demolition. Thankfully, the statue of St. George and the Italian Chapel were left standing. They became a popular attraction and now receive roughly 90,000 visitors annually.