If you ever feel like you need a lift, make your way to the Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm, Orkney. This marvelous little chapel was constructed by Italian prisoners of war who were sent to Orkney to work on the Churchill Barriers between 1942 – 1945. Their work on the causeways is still a modern marvel, but the chapel they built out of a couple of Nissen huts and an abundance of ingenuity are a monument to the human spirit, a testament to what can happen when love and faith triumph over hatred and anger.
Created from whatever materials could be scavenged or sourced very locally, the chapel is a work of both art and heart, a brilliant trompe l’oeil in which what appears to be dimensional stonework is actually clever painting on a flat wall. Even up close, it is hard to believe that the this is not a stonemason’s masterpiece. The altar is inspired by a prayer card given to the artist, Domenico Chiocchetti, by his mother before he left for war.
The spirit here is palpable. How easy it would have been for these warm-blooded Italians to be overcome by depression and anger when they were captured and consigned to spending the rest of the war working at hard, dangerous jobs on an island in the far north with long, dark winters. Instead, they found a way to nurture their spirits by creating a place of worship that engaged them all, both creatively and spiritually.
And in a way, it is also a tribute to their captors and guards who supported their efforts, and to modern Orcadians who maintain and love the building. People the world over are telling the story of the Italian Chapel, and visitors flock to visit the little chapel overlooking the Scapa Flow.
For those who know the story, there is a little secret hidden in plain sight, a token that reveals that love never dies, even in the midst of hardship and war. This is, and always has been, the secret of the human spirit, individually and collectively.
To read more about the chapel, its creators, and their story, I recommend The Italian Chapel by Philip Paris.