Memories of the Italian Chapel at Orkney

13 February 2014
imports_CESC_0-3wjgb8an-100000_69344.jpg Memories of the Italian Chapel at Orkney
John Muir, secretary of the Italian Chapel Preservation Society, talks about the appeal the beautiful POW chapel on Orkney has held for generations of visitors. ...
Memories of the Italian Chapel at Orkney Images

John Muir, secretary of the Italian Chapel Preservation Society, talks about the appeal the beautiful POW chapel on Orkney has held for generations of visitors.

The Island of Lambholm, Orkney had been uninhabited since the 1920s until early 1942 when over 500 Italian soldiers, captured in North Africa, arrived to assist in the construction of the Churchill Barriers. The barriers were constructed to close off four of the entrances to Scapa Flow, the base of the home fleet, and so avoid a disaster similar to the sinking of the Royal Oak early in World War Two with the loss of 833 lives. The prisoners were billeted in Nissen huts on the island and the chapel was built at the request of the men as they expressed a strong desire to have a place where they could worship because when their spirits were low they wanted to turn to prayer and to God for comfort.


There are, in my opinion, two outstanding features in the Chapel.  The first is the beautiful painting by Domenico Chiocchetti of the Madonna and Child above the altAr.  The painting is based on a prayer card given to Domenico by his mother before he left to go to war and which he always carried on his person. 

His materials were basic watercolour paint but he fashioned something which, to this day, is as fresh as the day it was painted and is greatly admired by the thousands of tourists who visit the chapel every year.

The second is a very simple, small metal heart which acts as a stop for the wrought iron gates on the rood screen fashioned by Guiseppe Palumbi, a blacksmith.  When Italy capitulated towards the end of the war the prisoners were granted freedom and visited local families on the mainland of Orkney. Guiseppe met and fell in love with a local girl by the name of Barbara. When he returned to Italy he took a photograph of his Orkney girlfriend with him but understandably, his Italian wife did not approve. She tore the photo to shreds and threw it in the fire Although Palumbi did not have any female siblings of his own he persuaded his sister to name her daughter Barbara after his Orkney girlfriend and I had the pleasure of meeting Barbara for the first time recently when I attended an exhibition in Rome which featured the Italian chapel in Orkney.


In 1996 a Declaration of Friendship was signed between the Orkney Islands Council and the Comune de Moena in Italy.  This was drawn up to strengthen the links of friendship between Orkney and Moena, to encourage and support visit by citizens to each other’s communities and to promote cultural exchanges between the communities. 


I first visited Moena in 1993 and I still hold fold memories of my first meeting with Dominico Chiocchetti – that humble, quiet, peaceful and talented man and his lovely and loving wife Maria.  I was back in Moena a few years later when Domencio was honoured being awarded the freedom of his home town. He died in May 1999 and the following month a Requiem Mass has held in the chapel he had created in Orkney and it was attended by his widow, Maria, son Fabio and daughters Letizia and Angela. 

It was a very moving service and made so much more so by the beautiful solo singing of Chiocchetti’s daughter Angela. I visit Moena fairly regularly and consider the Chiocchetti family as my very good friends and the Preservation Committee of the chapel are honoured to have Letizia Chiocchetti Fonti as honorary president to succeed her father. 

In May we look forward to a visit of 32 adults from Moena who will spend a few days in Orkney when a Mass will be conducted in the chapel when they will savour for themselves one of the most precious, yet unpretentious churches to be found anywhere on the planet.

Prior to the signing of the declaration and since there had been numerous exchange visits.  In 1992 and again in 1995 a number of ex-prisoners returned to Orkney and groups of students from Orkney visit Moena and in exchange the Orkney families host students from Moena.

Main image copyright John Muir and shows - left to right - John Muir, Francesca Caprara (granddaughter-in-law of Gino Caprara), Gino Caprara, one of the Orkney prisoners of war and made his fifth visit back to see the chapel in October 2013, Andrea Caprara (Gino’s grandson)

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