by Mary Kearns
What prayers, what longings did these captives pour
Out to their God, when swift to calm each fear
Christ, day by day stooped to His altar bier,
What time the priest the Sacred Host upbore. (H. Carlton S. Morris)
The word “liturgy” is usually understood and translated as “the work of the people” and this has led to all sorts of distortion when the emphasis is placed on people instead of on the Lord. How different it is to to say that liturgy is “the work of the people in the service of the Lord.” This is the true meaning of worship.The need to worship is inscribed indelibly in the hearts and minds of men. It is part of the natural law that in human beings, perhaps only dimly perceived, there exists something or someone greater than themselves to whom worship is due.
In the course of the Second World War, several hundred Italian prisoners found themselves very far from home on the wind-swept island of Lambholm in Orkney, off the north coast of Scotland. These men had been captured in Libya and sent to work on the Churchhill Barriers, a massive series of concrete causeways which were to seal the eastern entrance to Scapa Flow from enemy warships and submarines. In addition to the deprivationsof prison life and the hardship of labour in what was known as Camp 60, these men suffered from not being able to practise their faith. They were physically, morally and spiritually destituteand in common with other prisoners throughout the world at that time, the concern for their own families in wartime Europe was intensified by the absence of news from home.
But the Lord did not abandon them and a fortunate combination of circumstances brought together some key people. Owing to the efforts of these, a chapel was formed where the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass could be offered and where the abiding presence of the Lord provided a focus for the prayers and supplications of these prisoners of war. This was made possible because of the goodwill of a new camp commander Major T.P. Buckland, along with the enthusiasm and pastoral concern of Father Gioacchino Giacobazzi and the craftmanship of Domenico Chiocchetti, a prisoner with outstanding artistic ability.
The chapel that can be seen today is an outstanding witness to the Catholic faith, a labour of love and devotion to which were added a spirit of enterprise and the accomplishments of many different men. The building of the chapel was entirely the work of prisoners of war who transformed two Nissan huts into a chapel which could be used in liturgical ceremonies.
Having been given permission to use two Nissan huts which they joined together, the prisoners embarked on a project to make the enclosure as fitting as possible. The first consideration was the provision of materials which could be used to make the sanctuary area a place of beauty and splendour where the Lord would be welcomed and adored. Although the necessary materials were lacking, by using what was available, namely scrap metal, concrete and whatever oddments could be scavanged from shipwrecks, the creative talent of Chiocchetti was able to design and execute a work of art. Nonetheless, a great deal of hard work was needed to transform an army hut into a chapel.
From his fellow prisoners, Chiocchetti enlisted the expertise of a metal-worker, a smith, a cement worker, electricians and others. Firstly, it was necessary to cover the unsightly corrugated iron interior walls with plasterboard. Imitation bricks were painted on the higher level and panelling on the lower level of the walls. The vault of the sanctuary was also painted to resemble brick-work and the craftsmen applied frescoes here depicting the four evangelists.
Wood salvaged from a shipwreck provided the material for the tabernacle which would become the Lord’s dwelling-place. The altar was constructed from some available concrete and this also was used for the altar rails and holy water font. Candelabra were made from iron and brass. A small holy picture given Chiocchettti by his mother to keep him safe during the war provided the model for the masterwork of Madonna and Child which he painted on the sanctuary wall and which reached to the roof. On either side of this were painted panels resembling stained glass which portrayed two Italian saints, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Catherine of Siena. The inside of the hut’s curved roof over the sanctuary area was adorned by Chiocchetti with angelic figures. In the centre, immediately over the altar was painted a white dove representing the Holy Spirit. Some money from the prisoners’ welfare fund was used to purchase gold curtains and these were used to cover the two doorways on each side of the sanctuary. One of the outstanding artifacts of the chapel is the ornate wrought-iron rood-screen and gate made from scrap metal. This separates the sacred space of the sanctuary from the place reserved for worshippers.
When the sanctuary was completed it was a witness to the loving care spent on it. However the contrast between this area and remainder of the hut was great. The decision was therefore taken to embellish the whole interior of the hut. In this way, those entering would immediately be aware that they were in a space dedicated to the Lord, a place different and separate from the rest of the camp. To achieve this transformation, it first meant that just like the sanctuary area, the entire inside walls of the hut had to be covered in plasterboard. When this was completed, the walls were decorated with a pattern of brickwork and with a dado imitating carved stone. The resulting effect was one of beauty and dignity as befitting the house of the Lord.
Attention was then given to the chapel’s exterior and as it was necessary to hide the somewhat ugly appearance of the Nissan hut, an impressive facade was erected. In the walls at the front, decorated glass windows were carved to provide light to the chapel’s interior. Directly above the door on the front of the archway the sculpted head of Christ made from red clay and complete with crown of thorns was placed. Overall a gothic arch ornamented with pinnacles contained a bell to summon the prisoners to Mass. Finally a thick layer of cement was applied to the entire outside to protect the new chapel from the rain and wind of Orkney.
When eventually the first Mass was offered in the chapel, a recording of the choir and bells from St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome was provided by the playing of a gramophone record in the vestry.
As “the work of the people in the service of the Lord” the chapel at Lambholm became known as the “Italian Chapel.” Perhaps a far cry from the great cathedrals of Europe, the chapel at the edge of the world is also far from the modernist conception of the Lord’s house as a functional space for use of the community. The dichotomy of separating the “institutional Church” and the “spirit-filled assembly” would have been incomprehensible to the men who made the Italian Chapel.
Although modest in its size and put together with make-shift materials, the Italian Chapel provides evidence of the Catholic understanding of how a dwelling place for the Lord should look.
One of the most common criticisms of the Catholic Church is that it is too ostentatious in its richness and in is power and glory. This criticism comes from those who do not understand the Church’s nature, believing that the Church is an institution whose main function is to serve the people of God. Because of this, the desire exists to minimize the liturgy by attempting to bring it down to the people’s level and make it “meaningful.” Those who hold this view would also prune down the priestly vestments and sacred vessels, along with the interior and exterior decoration of the church building.
It is not just a matter of taste. Catholic liturgy pays homage not alone to the sacred humanity of Jesus Christ but to His Majesty and Divinity. The iconoclasm of the so-called Reformation is reflected in many Protestant buildings and sadly in recent years in some Catholic churches. As always when we see liturgy debased we have to look to theology for the underlying reason.
The Italians were repatriated before the end of World War II as Italy was then on the side of the Allies. What they left behind was not a souvenir of the war but a testament to the spirit that inspired them to lift up not only their hearts and minds to the Almighty, but also their hands and their talents. Owing to the diligent care of the Orkney people, the Italian Chapel has been maintained and cared for in the seventy years that have passed since Camp 60 was dismantled. Today the chapel is known around the world and is visited by tens of thousands every year. The former Camp 60 is deserted and the Italian Chapel can be seen from a distance in its isolation. There are no souvenirs to be purchased here, no coffee shop and no entrance fee to be a paid. Only the chapel and a statue of St. George remain.
The creation and survival of the Italian Chapel is one of the most inspiring stories of World War II. In spite of being trapped behind barbed wire, physically and morally impoverished, the desire to create a place to honour their God was the reason these men worked long and hard with inadequate tools and materials to build a chapel of noble and simple beauty.
Take thou thy shoes from off thy feet - nay more,
Bend a low knee if thou would’st enter here;
For a Real Presence lingers brooding near
This Holy Of Holies on a storm-lashed shore.