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Orkney's Italian Chapel is situated on the small island of Lamb Holm, easily accessed by causeway across Churchill Barrier No. 1 from the mainland village of St Marys.
The story of the chapel is very touching. It was created in the early 1940s by a group of Italian prisoners of war being held at Camp 60 on the island. They desperately wanted a place of worship, so they were given two Nissen huts by the camp commandant. The original intention was to use one as a school and one as a chapel, but once they created a sanctuary they continued decorating the huts as a chapel.
The artistic brains were from Domenico Chiocchetti, an artist among the prisoners. He had help from numerous others, and the camp commandant was enthusiastic as well, so much so that when it became apparent that Chiocchetti could not do all the painting alone, another painter was brought from a nearby camp.
The chapel they created is truly beautiful, and very touching. I often feel ill at ease in religious buildings, but not so here. The paintwork is incredible - the interior walls look like they are tiled and carved from stone, but it is all painted on. The sanctuary is a mix of bright colour, including a beautifully done picture of the Madonna based on a small picture of the painting Madonna of the Olives that Chiocchetti carried through the war.
In addition to the painting, the wrought iron screen separating the sanctuary is incredible. It took the smith of the group, Palumbo, four months to complete. It is absolutely perfect for the chapel, and an amazing piece of work.
Having completed the interior, the prisoners turned their thoughts to the exterior, which looked very drab in comparison to what was inside. Several of the prisoners created an impressive frontispiece to cover the drab Nissen hut door, complete with detailed head of Jesus above the door. One who was a cement worker also built a statue of St George slaying the dragon, symbolic of the prisoners strength, which can be seen near the chapel today. The statue, while no great work of art, is perfect for its purpose and setting.
What we have to remember is that all this was created from recycled materials, more or less what the prisoners could find lying around. If they had to buy something they pooled their ration money.
The story doesn't end when the war ends however. The Orcadians promised to cherish the chapel, and Chiocchetti returned to an emotional reception in 1960, and again with his wife Maria in 1964. A long term friendship has grown between Orkney and his hometown of Moena. The town of Moena often send gifts, including a carved wooden figure of Christ which stands outside on a wooden roadside shrine - the framework made in Orkney from detailed instructions sent by Chiocchetti!
Domenico Chiocchetti passed away in May 1999, and a month later a service was held in the chapel, attended by his family.
This little chapel, made from Nissen huts and recycled materials, is a testament to faith and love - the faith of the Italians who created it, and the love of the Orcadians who treasure what the Italians gave them. It is a beautiful chapel, with a beautiful location by the water.
I had never heard of the Italian Chapel before I reached Orkney - it was only then that I heard about it. I'm glad I did though, as it will be one of my best memories of the islands. There were information boards telling the story, and I found it so touching. These men were so far from home and they created a little bit of their homeland here in Orkney. The chapel they created is unique, yet despite being "homemade", it is beautiful, very peacceful and so lovingly created.
Entry is free, but there is a donation box. You can get a little guide book inside which tells the story of the chapel, for a suggested donation of £1 - worth every penny and more, as it is such a touching story. The chapel is fully accessible by wheelchair.