Our dear friend Paola just came back from a fabulous trip to Scotland. In this article she shares a lovely and moving story, and takes us to discover the “peedie chapel”…thank you Paola!
Smirr. What a wonderful Scottish word. A fine light drifting drizzle. Today is the longest day of the year. Dawn this morning was at 2.30 and the sun will set tonight at 10.30. But this particular smirr is icy, and I’m grateful for my thermal underwear as I zip up my anorak, pull my hood over my woollen hat, and hands in pockets, step out of the car and walk down the path. An oystercatcher hops along in front of me, as if to show me the way. Herring gulls swoop and screech above my head. A pair of curlews, guarding their chick, whistle from a nearby field.
My trip to this remote archipelago off the northern coast of Scotland was straightforward…a smooth drive from Edinburgh, and a comfortable ferry crossing.
The 550 Italian prisoners-of-war who were captured in North Africa, and transported to this outpost during the Second World War, must have had a very different experience.
I walk down towards the exquisitely maintained little chapel. Or perhaps I should say peedie chapel: here in Orkney, peedie means small. I am on Lamb Holm, the islet off mainland Orkney, where the Italians arrived in February 1942. The base was called Camp 60, and it was made up of 13 Nissen huts in a sea of mud.
The prisoners-of-war’s mission was to help construct the Churchill barriers, massive stone walls designed to block the waterways between some of the small islands, so as to protect Scapa Flow, the harbour of the British Home Fleet, from invasion by enemy ships.
Initially there was huge conflict between the men and their captors, until, in the autumn, a new Commandant, Major Buckland, arrived. He spoke Italian and loved everything to do with Italy, and relations improved.
As time went on, the prisoners became more integrated with the local population, helped them with their farmwork, ran classes, created a choir, and even organized football matches. But they were lonely in this far-flung place, and though they often joined together in prayer, there was something missing in their spiritual lives.
In 1943 a priest, Gioacchino Giacobazzo, was assigned to the camp. Padre Giacomo, as he was known, had been captured at a field hospital in North Africa, and story has it that he had managed to salvage the hospital’s Italian flag and bring it all the way to Orkney.
Padre Giacomo and Major Buckland formed a bond, and it was agreed that a chapel should be built on the site.
There were many skilled men amongst the prisoners who contributed to the construction of the chapel, it was the inspiration of one man in particular: Domenico Chiocchetti, an artist from Modena.
His first work of art on the site was a sculpture of St George killing the Dragon, made from barbed wire covered in concrete, a symbol of the prisoners’ victory over loneliness during their years of captivity.
Resources were limited, and the design of the chapel inventive. Chiocchetti was responsible for most of the interior decoration. Many skilled hands worked together to achieve the final result. The prisoners joined together two Nissen huts and covered them with plasterboard. The walls were delicately painted as trompe-l’oeil tiles. The light holders were made out of corned beef tins. The altar was built from concrete left over from the barriers. Candelabra were forged from iron and brass. Two painted glass windows, representing St Francis of Assisi and St Catherine of Siena, stretched up to the sanctuary roof on either side of the altar. Between them, Chiocchetti painted his masterpiece: a Madonna and Child, based on a small holy picture his mother had given him before he set out to war.
The war ended before the completion of the chapel, so it was used for a very short time. However, it had kept the men motivated for many months. After the men left in September 1944, Chiocchetti remained to complete the baptismal font, which was made from the inside of a car exhaust covered in a layer of concrete. When prisoner-of-war-camps were razed to the ground, the demolition teams refused to touch the chapel and the statue of St George, and these remained intact in the field.
Chiocchetti’s children have written about their father: ‘He would often tell us that he had ended up involved in a war that he didn’t understand, that he didn’t want. He wouldn’t indulge on the suffering nor on the troubles he had endured, he would rather highlight what positive things had come out of that conflict: the relationships with his comrades, their daily life together, the places he had seen and how he had managed to survive despite the fear and the many challenges.’*
And when I leave the chapel, my oystercatcher greets me at the door, ready to lead me back down the path. I think of those men, thrown together into a desperate situation by fate. I look back over the peedie white chapel standing bright and strong against the threatening sky, a lasting symbol of determination, unity, hope and peace.
To read more about the chapel, see https://www.orkneyology.com/italian-chapel.html