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Jay Cassie

The Orkney Island Chapel

The Glory of God in Concrete

The Orkneys Islands had been at the forefront of two world wars and the spirit of a small group of people forced to work there during the Second World War, left a tiny jewel that stands as a testimony to that spirit.

The spirit and creativity of man is never totally crushed by war - it will shine through to illuminate even the darkest hours.

The Orkneys Islands had been at the forefront of two world wars and the spirit of a small group of people forced to work there during the Second World War, left a tiny jewel that stands as a testimony to that spirit.

Refuge for the Navy

Following the sinking of the HMS Royal Oak by a German U-Boat in 1939 it was realised that the natural harbour of Scapa Flow needed extra defence against the German fleets. This expanse of sheltered water surrounded by small islands, gave refuge to the navy and orders were sent out for the old World War 1 barriers to be brought back into use and work began on the construction of four permanent barriers linking the chain of islands from Mainland to South Ronaldsay. These massive structures became known as the Churchill Barriers.

By 1942 the lack of man power needed to continue the project meant that 1300 prisoners of war were brought to the islands from the North African front. Italian prisoners of war were prevented, by treaty, from working on military projects, so the barriers became causeways linking the southern islands of Orkney. These were constructed of 40,000 cubic metres of rock encased in wire cages lowered into the sea and topped off by 300,000 tonnes of concrete blocks and surfaced to provide the roadways seen today.

Camp 60

Camp 60, a collection of 13 huts, was the home of 550 Italian prisoners from 1942 to 1945 and was built on the bare hillside on the northern edge of the tiny island of Lamb Holm.

A Concrete Statue of St George

The Italians, missing their homeland, set about creating paths and gardens with flower beds and vegetable plots. After Italy, Orkney must have seemed bleak and barren. They strived to build a community with a theatre and recreation hut complete with a billiard table made, inevitably, from concrete the one medium there was plenty of.

One of the prisoners, Domenico Chiocchetti, fashioned a statue of St. George out of barbed wire covered in concrete and this can still be seen today in what was then the centre of the camp.

In 1943 the new camp commander, a Major Buckland, together with Father Giacombazzi the Camp Padre, favoured the idea of building a chapel to administer to the spiritual wellbeing of the prisoners. Two Nissan huts were provided for the purpose.

Work on the interior of the chapel was led by Domenico Chiocchetti. The eastern end was lined with plasterboard and Chiocchetti started work on the sanctuary. The altar and its fittings were all made from concrete and the two windows made from painted glass. Gold curtains were purchased with the prisoners own funds from a company in Exeter. Imagine what this tiny place of worship would have meant to the imprisoned men.

Another prisoner, Palumbo who had been an iron worker in the States before the war, constructed the wrought iron rood screen which complements the rest of the interior today.

An Incredible Illusion

Having completed the eastern end of the chapel they now began work on the rest of the interior. This again was lined with plasterboard and Chiocchetti painted the most incredible trompe d'oeil effect tile work which visitors have to touch to realise it is an illusion.

The exterior of the chapel was completed and they built the façade that can be seen today. The belfry was added and a moulded head of Christ was placed above the door.

The end of the war meant that this chapel was only in use by the prisoners for a short time. It was not fully finished when the Italians were sent home but Chiocchetti stayed behind to complete the font for the interior. The base was made of a large spring encased in concrete topped with a simple basin.

A pledge was given by the Lord Lieutenant of Orkney that the Orcadians would care for this wonderful building.

Restoring a Masterpiece

In 1958 a preservation committee was set up and in 1960 Chiocchetti returned to Orkney to help restore his masterpiece. In 1964 he again returned with his family and gave to the chapel the fourteen wooden Stations of the Cross on view today.

In 1992, fifty years after they had come to Orkney, eight former prisoners returned but unfortunately Chiocchetti was too ill to be with them. In 1999 he died in his village of Moena, aged 89.

This small chapel is a tribute to his artistry and to the spirit and creativity of all those involved in its creation. The Orcadians have kept their promise and this beautiful monument forges a link between the people of Moena and Lamb Holm which is still strong today. It shows what can be done with the meanest of materials and the dreams of determined men.

By Jay Cassie

    Orkneys Chapel 300

    MORE TO EXPLORE

    More about the Orkneys & Shetland Isles

    Rail Links:
    Scot Rail www.firstgroup.com

    Ferry Company:
    Northlink Ferries www.northlinkferries.co.uk

    Air Links:
    British Airways - www.britishairways.com

    Car Hire:
    Orkney Car Hire - www.orkneycarhire.co.uk
    Bolts Car Hire - www.boltscarhire.co.uk

     

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