The Italian Chapel on Orkney

The Italian Chapel – by Dorothy Gray


Like many of you I have visited many great cathedrals and churches, but this year, on The Orkneys, I visited a very small chapel with an inspiring story.


It was built by Italian prisoners of war, who were shipped in to help with the construction of the Churchill barriers, which joined the southern isles to the main island of Orkney in order to protect Scapa Flow.


The prisoners, backed by an enthusiastic padre, requested that they be allowed to build a place of worship.  Fortunately, the camp commandant was sympathetic to the idea and among the prisoners was an outstanding artist, Dominico Chiocchetti, as well as a range of craftsmen and electricians.


The prisoners were given a Nissen hut and began work lining one end with plaster board to create the sanctuary. Amazingly the altar screen, candlesticks etc were constructed almost entirely with scrap metal, salvaged materials and cement. Chiocchetti painted stained glass windows and an altar piece depicting the Madonna and Christ child.


Next the prisoners tackled the main body of the chapel. This was plastered and painted to look like brickwork, stone panels and a vaulted ceiling. On the outside they also built an elaborate facade to disguise the shape of the hut and finally coated the whole hut with a thick layer of cement.


In 1960 Chiochetti returned for three weeks to help restore the chapel. On leaving he wrote, “The chapel is yours to love and preserve. I take with me to Italy the remembrance of your kindness and wonderful hospitality.” Now a bond of friendship endures between the Orcadians and the people of Chiocchetti’s home village of Moena, who have gifted a carved figure of the crucified Christ in the form of a wayside shrine, which stands at the door of the chapel.


 Not only was the construction and art work amazing but I found the background story really uplifting.