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Thought For The Week - Chapel a testament to POWs

Soldiers on active service or even prisoners of war will leave their regimental badge as a memorial of their stay or captivity.

The Italian prisoners of war held on Orkney left a chapel and a statue of St George and the dragon as a testimony to their faith and belief.

They stand today for us to marvel at the Christian devotion of the men who constructed such a monument.

In 1939 Churchill, faced with the sinking of HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow by a German submarine, with the loss of over 800 seamen, ordered all naval vessels out of Scapa Flow and planned four permanent causeways as barriers between the islands.

The construction firm Balfour Beatty using 550 Italian prisoners of war drafted to Orkney gave reality to this plan.

Some of the Italian prisoners led by Domenico Chiochetti, an artistic POW, with the major’s permission and encouragement, turned two Nissen huts into a chapel, using plasterboard and scrap materials.

Chiochetti’s altar painting was inspired by a devotional card, a gift from his mother, when he was called up for the Italian army.

The altar rails were made of scrap metal by POW Giuseppe Palumbi.

The statue of St George and the dragon, near the chapel, was fashioned by Chiochetti from barbed wire covered in concrete.

This account says little about the hard work that went into constructing a chapel out of two Nissen huts and basic materials. The prisoners not involved with creating the chapel willingly did extra shifts to allow work to proceed.

The Italians left Lamb Holm in 1944. The chapel was allowed to deteriorate until the late 1950s.

Only through the efforts of the BBC was Chiochetti contacted in his Italian mountain village of Moena and welcomed by my uncle, Father Frank Cairns SJ, Kirkwall’s Catholic parish priest, on his brief return to Orkney in 1960 to undertake restoration work on the chapel interior.

Do visit the chapel that still survives in Orkney. Say a prayer for all those involved in its construction and preservation.

Philip Paris’s book, Orkney’s Italian Chapel, The True Story of an Icon, sums up the miracle of Lamb Holm in its last sentence: “The chapel remains fragile and immortal, a symbol of peace and hope from people long gone for those yet to come.”

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