The Italian Chapel on Orkney: Il Miracolo del Campo 60

The Italian Chapel on Orkney: Il Miracolo del Campo 60

Jump to visiting information for the Italian Chapel on Orkney.

Idle hands make the Devil’s handiwork. Your grandmother’s worn-out words of wisdom ring especially true in situations of enforced confinement. I have to believe that those words were playing on repeat in the minds of British officials in charge of POWs during World War II. Accordingly, those POWs were quickly assigned a different type of work than they had signed up for.

Italian Chapel facade
The Italian Chapel on Orkney

Scapa Flow

The Orkney Islands of northern Scotland were a strategic location during WWII. The Scapa Flow is a large bay surrounded by the Orkney Islands. From there, the British Navy could control entry to and exit from the North Sea via northern routes. As such, during both wars, Scapa Flow housed a large naval base. During WWII, Nazi U-boats continuously tried to undermine the control of the British Navy in Orkney to ease their passage into the Atlantic from the North Sea.

In 1939, a ship called the HMS Royal Oak was anchored in Scapa Flow. It had a crew of 1400 men – most of whom were young men and first-time sailors, training for military service. During the night, a U-boat made its way into Scapa Flow and fired several torpedoes on the HMS Royal Oak. The second torpedo caused major damage, and the ship sank. Because it was a surprise attack on a trainee crew, most of the crew didn’t make it out.

833 men died in the attack.

Italian Chapel interior
The altar of the Italian Chapel

The Barriers

In response to the attack, Winston Churchill ordered that barriers be constructed between the Orkney Islands. He was hoping to prevent another U-boat from getting so close into British territory. Given that it was wartime, there were very few able-bodied men around to do the construction work.

Most men had shipped off to the Western Front. This was especially hard on Orkney, which had just a small community to begin with. There were very few laborers available to do the necessary work.

With no local laborers available to build the barriers, POWs were relocated to Orkney. In particular, a group of Italians who had been captured in North Africa were relocated to Camp 60 on the island of Lamb Holm to carry out the work.

Ceiling in the Italian Chapel

Building a Miracle at Camp 60

These Italian POWs were far from home, subjected to what amounted to slave labor, and suffering from all the ailments that go along with unpreparedness for a cold, dark, wet, and windy climate. They needed a source of comfort.

So, they appealed for the right to build a house of prayer. Permission was granted, and the men set to work. But, while permission had been granted, resources had not. It was, after all, wartime Britain. So the men got creative.

They took two of the huts they had been allocated and stood them end-to-end, then covered the interior walls with plaster. They used concrete leftover from their work on the barriers to create all the interior fixtures, such as the altar and communion rail. Re-purposed spam tins made excellent candle holders. Stations of the Cross were carved from wood found nearby.

But, this was a chapel for Italians. These men came from the land of San Pietro, of Santa Maria delle Grazie, of Santa Maria del Fiore. No mere corrugated steel hut was going to serve as  a chapel. One of the inmates, Domenico Chiocchetti, used paint to decorate the interior, make it look as much as possible with the few materials he had to hand like an Italian Roman Catholic church.

A Station of the Cross in the Italian Chapel

An Italian Chapel in Orkney

In 1944, the Italian POWs at Camp 60 moved to another camp in Yorkshire. But Domenico Chiocchetti asked to remain behind, so that he could finish working on the facade of the chapel. The Lord Lieutenant of Orkney, who owned the island on which the chapel stands, promised the departing POWs that Orcadians would maintain the chapel. Well after the war, in 1964, Domenico Chiocchetti returned to Orkney to visit the chapel.

The men might all be gone, but the miracle of what they did in Camp 60 still stands on Lamb Holm.

Visiting the Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm:

Getting there: The address for the Italian Chapel is Lamb Holm, Orkney KW17 2SF. Driving or taking a tour bus out there is advisable. Plan your visit here.

Admission: Entry costs £3 per person.

Opening hours:

  • November to March: Open daily, 10 AM to 1 PM
  • April and October: Monday to Saturday, 10 AM to 4 PM; Sunday 10 AM to 3 PM
  • June to August: Open daily, 9 AM to 6:30 PM
  • May and September: Open daily, 9 AM to 5 PM

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