BY SCO Admin | October 8 | comments icon 2 COMMENTS     print icon print


A testament to the triumph of faith

— MARTIN DUNLOP speaks to author PHILIP PARIS about the two books he has written on the Italian Chapel in the Orkney Isles that was built by former prisoners of war and discovers that his writings are driven by a desire to tell their story of hope and Faith

To this day the story behind Orkney’s Italian chapel remains both a fascinating and inspiring one. What is possibly even more remarkable, however, are the enduring friendships that still remain—and continue to blossom—as a result of the many lives the chapel has touched since work began on its construction in 1943.

Such acts of friendship were evident when Tain author Philip Paris—whose work includes the fictional Italian Chapel and the non fiction Orkney’s Italian Chapel—visited Italy last month and had an emotional encounter with 90-year-old Coriolano Gino Caprara, an ex-Orkney prisoner of war who was one of the many inspirations behind Mr Paris’ work.

“Gino’s phenomenal memory for the minute detail of day-to-day life in the Orkney POW camp, what it was like to work on the famous Churchill Barriers and how the Italians integrated with local families as the Second World War progressed, provided an invaluable contribution to The Italian Chapel and the non-fictional Orkney’s Italian Chapel,” Mr Paris said.

The chapel was built on Lamb Holm, one of the remote Orkney Isles, where Italian POWs were held during the Second World War. The POWs had been brought to Orkney to help with the construction of the landmark Churchill defence barriers on Scapa Flow, but their presence and influence on the lives of the islanders stretched far beyond their work on the barriers and the chapel they built has become an enduring symbol of peace and hope around the world as well as a symbol of the remarkable triumph of the human spirit.

As war raged on, the community of Orkney was transformed by the presence of the Italians, and, despite their difficult living conditions, their limited contact with war-threatened families and loved ones back home and their almost insufferable battle with the Orkney weather (a marked difference to the climate in North Africa where many of them had been captured by Allied Forces), they managed to make a lasting impression on the Islanders.

As Mr Paris highlights in Orkney’s Italian Chapel: “It soon became apparent that the human soul requires more nourishment than the bare camps could provide; the Italians needed to establish a place of hope and freedom, a place where they could embrace the Faith that would see them through these dark days.’

Thus began the construction of the chapel under the leadership of Italian artist Domenico Chiocchetti.

Mr Chiocchetti’s gentle and humble character complimented by his steely determination and enthusiasm comes to the fore in both Mr Paris’ books, providing the reader with a fascinating insight not only into Mr Chiocchetti’s Faith but the remarkable resilience of Italians in general, who seem to have the inimitable thirst for triumph in the face of adversity.

Mr Paris’ first encounter with the chapel occurred five years ago, on August 23, 2005, when he visited the Orkney Isles on his honeymoon.

“My wife [Catherine] had spoken about the chapel before and said that we must pay it a visit,” Mr Paris said.

What he was not to know at this stage, however, was that this was to be a day that would change the rest of his life.

“We were lucky in that the first day that we went to see the chapel it was empty,” he added.

As the couple took in the fantastic paintings and designs—including Chiocchetti’s wonderful Madonna and Child above the altar—they were left utterly captivated by what had been achieved in two converted nissen huts.

“We were both moved to tears,” Mr Paris recalled. “It was extraordinary, we both had tears streaming down our faces.”

It immediately hit Mr Paris that this was going to be so much more than a one-off visit to the chapel, so compelled did he feel to find out everything he possibly could about its history and those involved with its construction.

“I immediately bought every book I could along with old newspaper clippings to find out as much about the chapel as I possibly could,” he said. “It soon became clear that nobody had ever asked the real story behind the chapel’s existence.

“So many people had so many bits and pieces out there but I could not believe the full story about the chapel had not been told in 65 years.”

In the proceeding years Mr Paris has tracked down ex- POWs from Orkney as well as descendants of the key artists involved in building the chapel. The majority of his correspondence has taken place via e-mail and written letters to those involved.

“I was building up a lot of interesting details talking to the families of many of the Italians, they were all very interested in what I was trying to do.

“I still couldn’t believe that nobody had ever told the full story and it was a case of trying to bring all the parts together.”

Mr Paris’ first trip to Italy to meet one of the prisoners, however, did not take place until last month when he travelled to Latina, south of Rome, to meet Gino Caprara, an experience he described as ‘very emotional.’

Gino Caprara did not work personally on the Orkney Chapel (he was part of a separate camp on the island of Burray) but it was his ‘phenomenal memory’ for the minute detail of day-to-day life in the camp’—shared in numerous letters with Mr Paris—that were to be of fundamental importance to the writing of both his books.

“I had been corresponding regularly with Gino for more than three years and it was very moving to actually meet up,” Mr Paris said. “During our visit he took us to the nearby Beach Head War Cemetery at Anzio, where the Allies landed at the beginning of 1944.

“Gino’s English, which he learned while in the camp, was still great and he has real enthusiasm for the story. The trip was very emotional. It was as if we had known each other for years. I have never met anybody so fit and who looked so well for his age in my life.

“It was marvellous to spend time with Gino and his family and it was a week my wife and myself will remember for the rest of our lives.”

Following the visit to Latina, Mr Paris and his wife travelled to Italy’s east coast to meet the family of Guiseppe Palumbi, the Italian blacksmith who made a beautiful, and highly symbolic, rood screen, which forms one of the most personal touches to the Italian Chapel. This included a meeting with the blacksmith’s daughter, who is named after the woman in Orkney who Guiseppe fell in love with while he was based at the Orkney camp.

“Meeting the granddaughter, and the rest of the Palumbi family is a memory we will treasure,” Mr Paris said. “While it was being built, the chapel helped to form enemies into friends. It continues to be a catalyst for friendships—a great symbol of hope and peace from the Second World War.

“We met seven members of the Palumbi family who didn’t speak any English but these types of friendship are what the chapel stands for.”

A sense of pride envelopes Mr Paris when he looks back at what has developed since his visit to the chapel five years ago and he described the writing and research involved with both his books as something that developed into ‘a passion.’

“I had worked in journalism for many years but always felt within me that I wanted to write a book,” he said. “When I visited the chapel I knew this was my chance, I just felt compelled to write the story.”

In addition to the influential support of his wife Catherine (there is nobody’s opinion Mr Paris values more) he expressed his deep gratitude to John Muir, secretary of the Italian Chapel Preservation Committee, whose list of contacts of people that have been involved with the chapel since its foundation, proved to be of invaluable importance to his quest to unearth the full story.

“Without his help I don’t think I could have written the books,” he said. “He has built up an extensive list of contacts over the years.”

This never-ending list of chapel contacts is growing day-to-day as Mr Paris continues to discover.

Only one day prior to his conversation with the SCO he had been contacted via Kirkwall Library by an Italian wanting to find out more about a family connection with the chapel.

“A woman’s husband’s grandfather had worked on the chapel and they were in contact to find out more about his involvement,” he said. “There have been so many discoveries and calls such as this are coming through all the time.”

Later this month Mr Paris and his wife will travel to Tunbridge Wells where they will meet the twin granddaughters of Major Thomas Pyres Buckland, camp commander of Camp 60 (where the chapel was built) and who was a very popular figure among the Italian POWs.

Mr Paris has received extensive praise for The Italian Chapel, a book, which, like his own visit to the chapel five years ago, leaves the reader with a thirst for more knowledge.

“It’s marvellous to hear people telling me they have visited the chapel on account of the book,” he said. “What else is moving is when people that don’t normally read tell me they have read the book and enjoyed it.

“I have heard from a lot of wives whose husbands have stumbled across the book in the house and they have not been able to get it back off them!”

Mr Paris also described how heartening it is to him when people become emotionally attached to the book, a feeling he understands well having, by his own admission, sat at the computer ‘with tears streaming down my face’ during the hours of writing.

An interesting thought also occurred to Mr Paris when quizzed over what would be the next step for the chapel’s story. “I think the story would make a marvellous film,” he said.

If the story of the much-treasured chapel and its long and proud history can be retold on the big screen half as well as Mr Paris has pieced together the tale over the last five years it would certainly be an interesting proposition for any enthusiastic film director.

While there is uncertainty over the next step on the chapel’s incredible journey of Faith, one thing that remains certain, however, is that the Italian Chapel will continue to touch lives and provide inspiration for many years to come, testament to the extraordinary Faith and resilience of the Italian POWs who arrived in Orkney almost 70 years ago.

—Philip Paris’ fictional book The Italian Chapel was published in hardback last September with the paperback published last month. The non-fictional Orkney’s Italian Chapel was published in May

Comments - 2 Responses

  1. D. Rowell says:

    Do you know if the chapel has a priest?

  2. Liz Leydon says:

    The Italian Chapel no longer functions as an active parish but has been preserved due to historical interest.

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