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.
What an absolutely beautiful creation, Helen! The human spirit not being defeated and the ongoing link with Moena is a wonderful thing. I would love to see it. Thanks so much for bringing it to my attention.
It’s a beauty- definitely worth the effort to see! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment Jo
I’d heard of the Italian Chapel, but didn’t know its story. What a positive thing to come out of the war – and quite astonishing and lovely, creating long lasting links with Italy.
Yes, the friendship that emerged from the whole thing is a beautiful thing.
And a story that should live for centuries …
What a lovely story behind this equally lovely chapel. I once spent a weekend hiking across Orkney but didn’t come across this chapel. It is wonderful that he got back and managed to restore his artwork. And that the residents maintain and preserve this creation. A very emotional story, indeed.
I’d love to get back and do some hiking and island hopping up there! The chapel would always be lovely, but the back story gives it that extra something.
What a wonderful and moving story! It is amazing to think that two Nissen huts could be transformed into such a place of beauty and meaning. It was particularly heart-warming to read that the Italian
link has been maintained.
It’s a lovely thing to emerge from the war years, I think. And still standing and cherished!
Great story of a wonderful transformation and restoration. It looks like a beautiful place to visit, and there certainly is a lot of history not just with the chapel but the area itself.
Beautiful, Ud love to visit Orkney sometime.
I hope you do Marion, it’s a bit of a trip but very much worth the effort.
It’s a wonderful place – we’ve been a couple of times. Hard to believe what it’s actually made of.
It’s a place that had stayed with me. What was achieved in the building of the chapel and the connection that came after is remarkable.
Absolutely beautiful, and what an interesting piece of local history. Orkney is definitely on my list of places to visit. X
Orkney makes a great family trip, I hope you make it up there. And of course, as getting there usually involves a Scottish road trip, the journey is every bit as fabulous as the destination!
That’s amazing and so nice that the chapel is still being looked after and enjoyed. X
I agree, I think it says a lot about the Orcadians. A good bunch!
I wasn’t aware of this wartime story … what a marvellous thing to do.
Friendship out of conflict is certainly worthy of celebration, isn’t it?
It is- a little treasure! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, appreciated!
I’ve read about this place but I’ve never seen pictures before. It looks beautiful.
It is just stunning, it’s very humble but at the same time quite ornate. Being up in Orkney, a bit out of the way for most, but definitely worth a visit if you’re ever up that way!
An interesting read and beautiful pictures. I’ve not been to Orkney (yet) but no doubt one day 🙂
Thank you so much- The Orkney Islands are beautiful and the people so welcoming. I hope you make it there one day!