I recently posted about Sandham Memorial Chapel, a beautiful purpose-built memorial in the Hampshire countryside. My time spent at Sandham got me thinking about another unique chapel created with love and creativity: The Italian Chapel, Orkney.
The Churchill Barriers, Orkney
The Italian Chapel, on the tiny island of Lamb Holm is a tribute to faith and friendship. How it came to has got to be one of the most moving human stories of the island’s wartime history.
The story of the chapel begins with the Churchill Barriers. Now, the barriers act as causeways, linking Orkney Mainland to smaller islands. Driving across them is a unique Orkney experience and a great place to spot shipwrecks and wildlife.
In the 1940’s, they were an essential. German U-boat activity had led to lost ships and loss of life. The then First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, ordered that barriers be created to block of the approaches. A mammoth engineering project that needed workers.
They came in the form of Italian prisoners of war, held in a camp on the tiny island of Lamb Holm. The barriers weren’t they only thing they built.
The Italian Chapel, Orkney
Camp 60 on Lamb Holm was home to 550 Italian Prisoners of War. Their capture while fighting in North Africa coincided with the need for manpower in Orkney, and so the Italian soldiers found themselves carving out home in a camp on a far-flung Scottish island.
Being men of faith, a place of worship was important. Two Nissen huts were provided and joined together to create a makeshift chapel. The transformation from industrial huts to Italian beauty began with the vision of one artistic prisoner: Domenico Chiocchetti. He found skilled hands in his fellow prisoners. Electricians, cement workers, metal workers.
Corrugated iron was hidden with plasterboard. Behind the altar, Chiocchetti’s masterpiece. Madonna and Child, inspired by a prayer card he’d carried with him throughout the war.
The simple desire for a place to worship became something special in the hands of the Italian POW’s. Scrap brass and iron was found to make candelabra. Wood from a wrecked ship for the tabernacle. Money came via a prisoner’s welfare fund to purchase curtains for the sanctuary.
By the time the prisoners left in 1944, a façade had been created to mask the original outline of the huts, complete with a red clay image of Christ. A thick coat of cement dressed the exterior. Two humble Nissen huts had been transformed into something that wouldn’t look out of place on an Italian hillside.
The Italian Chapel, Post- War.
Post-war, Camp 60 disappeared, but the Chapel remained. Orcadians took over stewardship the Italian Chapel became a visitor attraction. By the late 1950’s, the chapel was growing in fame but deteriorating in condition. The issue of preservation had to be addressed. A committee was formed, and repairs carried out, funded by visitor donations.
In 1960, as the result of the dedication of a local committee and generous assistance from the BBC, Domenico Chiocchetti was traced to his home in Moena, Italy. He returned to Orkney to visit. With assistance from a local craftsman, Chiocchetti restored some of his original paintwork and supervised other repairs.
A service was held to celebrate the restoration, attended by Orcadians of all denominations. Chiocchetti was the first to receive Holy Communion. Domenico Chiocchetti died at home in Italy in 1999. In a letter to the islanders, he wrote,” The Chapel is yours, for you to love and preserve”. The people of Orkney have stepped up beautifully, caring for both the Chapel and the connections it created.
Since the 1960 restoration, the relationship between Moena and Orkney has endured. Chiocchetti’s daughter, Letizia, is an Honorary President of the Preservation Committee. Moena is now twinned with the Orkney town of Kirkwall.
Visiting The Italian Chapel
Find the chapel at Lamb Holm, Orkney, KW17 2SF
Admission is £3.50 per adult, children under 12 are free. Guidebook available for a small donation.
Open all year round, with the exception of Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Hours vary seasonally. For up-to-date information, check with Visit Orkney.
If you’d like a look at the place with which Orkney has developed such an enduring connection, check out Visit Trentino for information on Moena and beyond.
Post originally published in 2019. Improved, fact checked and republished in 2022.