La Bella Cappella Italiana

My luck, when it comes to touristy things, is not all that great.  Years ago when I went to visit a friend in Arizona we decided to go to the Grand Canyon, since I had never seen it.  Though it was springtime, it snowed, and before and after the snow there was fog.  I stood at one of the viewing points near some other disappointed people and said to the man beside me, “They tell me there's a canyon here.  They even say it's 'Grand'.”  He laughed ruefully as we looked out across an expanse of... foggy clouds.  I still don't feel like I've seen the massive, awe-inspiring sight that everyone raves about!

Similarly, a few years ago here in Scotland a friend and I went over to Orkney.  Boy did we hit it wrong.  I was on an island – a series of islands, in fact – but I never would have known it.  While mist and fog are not unexpected in Scotland, this was extreme.  The ferry muscled through the swirling waters of the Pentland Firth for about three times longer than the expected crossing time.  We were fairly sure we were lost at sea but finally we spotted a signal light through the thick fog and the ferry berthed safely.  I know they have all kinds of fancy navigational equipment onboard nowadays but it was no joke – even the crew looked relieved when we got there.  In spite of the weather we had fun on the bus tour, but similar to my time at the Grand Canyon, I didn't feel like I'd really seen Orkney at all.  Fog, drizzle, mist, rain... we could have been anywhere.

Is anyone out there?

Now that we've moved we're closer to Orkney, and a couple of months ago my husband and I booked ferry tickets and the same all-day bus tour that I'd taken before.  Sem hadn't been there for decades and my first experience had been a bit lacking, so we looked forward to a good day out.  The weather even cooperated!

This is the Atlantic Ocean, believe it or not – we “crossed” it in about ten seconds, on the bus!

The tour includes as many places of interest as possible given the timing from the first arriving ferry to the last departing one, and it's worth the trip.  The tour bus meanders from one island to another using the Churchill Barriers (aka the Churchill Causeways) which are engineering marvels in their own right.  For anyone interested, the places they stop are Kirkwall, Stromness, Skara Brae (a Neolithic village), the Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness, and one more very special place.

Wartime wreck in Scapa Flow, as seen from one of the Churchill Barriers.

Volumes have been written about Orkney's wartime history (both World Wars), and the many ancient sites, majestic and mysterious, have been extensively researched as well.  One column could never cover all that Orkney has to show us, but there is a gem of a place that tugs at the heartstrings which I would like to share with you.

“La Bella Cappella Italiana” is the Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm.  Italian POWs were held there on that previously-uninhabited island during WWII, and after a time they asked – and were duly allowed – to build a Roman Catholic chapel there.  They were given two Nissen huts which were placed end-to-end, and they used whatever materials they either were given from their work on the barriers, or that they could find, glean, or re-purpose.

Italians are known for art, sculpture and stone-masonry.  Among the prisoners of war there were some very talented men, and many more who contributed muscle.  It was a labor of love and of faith, to the extent that when the prisoners began their journey homeward just before the end of the war, one of them, Domenico Chiocchetti, stayed behind to finish work on the chapel.  That's dedication!

Instead of reciting dates and facts (dry, dusty stuff!), I will instead tell you that the place feels peaceful, even holy, though we only had a scant quarter-hour to look around.  Even so, if you can become still within yourself in spite of the tourist-bustle and camera flashes, looking around this small space can take your breath away.  The trompe l’oeil was done so skillfully that even looking at the walls up close, you almost have to touch them to believe that they are not made of stone.  The lanterns were made out of corned beef tins, the baptismal font was made from the inside of a car exhaust which was covered in concrete, and outside the chapel there's a barbed-wire-and-concrete statue of St. George slaying the dragon that is nearly as beautiful as any sculpture you'll see in a city square.

The devotion that went into the building of this lovely place in the middle of nowhere can hardly fail to touch the heart.  The artistry, engineering, and creativity bring home, to me at least, that these men weren't “just” POWs or “just” soldiers, they were people with talents and skills; engineers and tradesmen, artists and workers, who just wanted a place to worship.  How easy it is to lump a group of people together as “just” something-or-other, forgetting the humanity within them (and ourselves)!  What they conceived, planned and created is remarkable.

The Orcadians promised the POWs that they would watch over this shining jewel, and they have not gone back on their word.  It is an astounding place.  I wish I could go there during a quieter time to just stand and reflect, both indoors and outside, at what these men accomplished in a place far from home, in a country so different to anything they knew.

I'd never heard of “La Bella Cappella Italiana” before I went to Orkney that foggy day a few years ago.  It wasn't part of any of my history lessons, but maybe it should have been.  To learn about this small chapel on a windswept island would surely have rounded out my understanding of not just history but the human spirit, and how much good can come out of people treating each other with understanding and respect, even during – especially during – wartime.

I am no longer a church-goer in the traditional sense, and my thoughts on the subject of religion and faith have changed a lot over the years.  But whatever a person's beliefs, this enduring testament to devotion is something very special to see.  The fact that concrete, plasterboard, barbed wire, and scrap metal along with some paint, skill, and determination can be turned into such a beautiful place says so much about the men who created it.  That it still stands protected by those to whom it was entrusted is something special, too.  It's likely that there are few if any left, of those who worked on the chapel.  But what a legacy they have left the world in this small, beautiful building, created by love.

People can be awe-inspiring, given a chance.

Deb Segelitz
Deb Segelitz was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and is astounded to find herself living in the Scottish Highlands. Equally surprising to her is that she now has a small business restoring and selling old fountain pens. These two facts have convinced Deb that life is either beautifully random, or filled with destiny created by someone with a sense of humor. She hopes the fine north state residents will accept her as an honorary member, since she has some cousins in California who she visited once, but even more importantly because the north state folks she actually knows are fabulous people, who are also the reason for her presence here on An enthusiastic amateur photographer, Deb is grateful that she lives in a place that's about as point-and-shoot as it gets. Her tortoiseshell cat, Smartie, rates her as an average minion, too slow with the door-opening but not too bad on the food-dish-refilling, and her husband hasn't had her deported back to the States yet, so things must be going all right there, as well.
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27 Responses

  1. Matthew Grigsby says:

    Magnificent, truly. I may be biased by my love for Italy and the Italian people, but I don’t see how anyone would fail to see the beauty here. I’d love to see it for myself one day, this little piece of the sunny Mediterranean on a foggy Scottish isle. Those colors are so beautiful!

    Thank you yet again for sharing your world with us!

  2. Richard Christoph says:

    Deb, your tales are always a splendid way to begin the day and this one was truly exceptional. Our two visits to Scotland are not nearly enough and we will definitely plan on visiting Orkney, the Cappella, and standing stones on the next trip. Thanks for sharing.

    BTW, we recently began watching the BBC series “Shetland” which in addition to be well-written and acted, is worthwhile for the cinematography alone.

    • Deb Deb says:

      Glad you enjoyed it, Richard! I hope that one day you will be able to come back.

      “Shetland” is quite a good series (though my husband often says, “Why are nearly all the accents in the show ‘Shetland’ Glaswegian?”). I would love to see more of the islands around our island in person one day, too.

  3. Ginny says:

    I remember the Italian prisoner in the movie “Sahara” staring Humphrey Bogart. He was conscripted to fight in the Italian Army. He didn’t want to fight anyone. I am sure the men who were artisans of this beautiful chapel were also similar as that prisoner in the movie. What a wonderful heritage these men left for the World to see. It doesn’t take a lot of money to make something so beautiful, but love of the Lord to lead them.

    Thank you for the views and the history story. Blessings………….

    • Deb Deb says:

      I think there are likely many who do not want to fight anyone, but who must do so because it is their duty (especially during times of conscription). There were reunions over the years at the Italian Chapel, and while those are likely done, now, it’s lovely that that legacy has been left behind. I’m glad you enjoyed the article 🙂

  4. Peggy says:

    Fascinating piece of history..the beauty created out of the darkness of war…powerful art and inspiring. Beautifully written Deb. Thank you.

  5. Caroler says:

    We went to the Orkney Islands in 2011 & I also was enthralled & impressed by the chapel. And loved all of Scotland that we got to see. Thanks for sharing your writing with us, it is always wonderful.

  6. The Old Pretender says:

    Wonderful place, thanks for the visit. On our honeymoon trip around Oregon we came upon the magnificent Crater Lake, but it was one big fog bank. So we settled for a photo of the diorama in the lobby of the visitor’s center. Still haven’t been back.

  7. Philip Paris says:

    The Italian chapel is very close to my heart. I spent years researching the events surrounding its creation and have made many friends around the world because of this. I also live in the Highlands of Scotland and regularly give talks about the building’s history and the artists who created it. I’m not sure exactly where you are Deb, but my next talk is in Dornoch in January. You would be very welcome!

    • This is what makes A News so wonderful. Deb, an American in Scotland, writes a piece about an Italian chapel, a column that’s read by thousands, including you, Philip, who also live in the Highlands of Scotland and specializes in this subject. I hope you two can meet.

      I’m grateful to Deb for enlightening us about this incredible place, and you, Philip, for commenting on this site. Welcome!

    • Deb Deb says:

      That’s lovely, Philip, and it’s nice to ‘meet’ you here in ANC! We’re in Wick these days, and with my husband going to haemodialysis 3x a week Dornoch might be a bit of a stretch for us, but perhaps one day you’ll be a bit farther north – I’d love to hear one of your talks! The Italian Chapel is an extraordinary place indeed.

    • Deb Deb says:

      Coming back to this comment to reply further – after I visited the Italian Chapel the first time, I went to our wee local library (in my former village) to find out more. They had a book about it which was a work of fiction based on research and fact, including (if I remember correctly) stories from the POWs themselves, contributing to the book. I very much suspect it might have been your book, in which case thank you, for having woven fact and fiction so beautifully together. I remember wishing I’d read the book *before* going to the chapel, as it added a layer of depth to a place which had captured my imagination. How lucky I was to visit it a second time, then, with those stories in mind, this summer!

  8. Karen C says:

    La Bella Cappella Italiana, beautiful Italian Chapel indeed! That would certainly be one of my choices of a place to visit. I love places like that,

    As always, your writing is beautiful and you manage to create visions in my head. I feel like I am right there with you. Each photo of the chapel is beautiful and took my breath away.
    Thank you for a wonderful, visual into your life as you visit your new homeland and discover the many wonders.

  9. Beverly Stafford says:

    Oh Deb, you did it again! Beautiful story and photos. It would be interesting to know if Philip Paris’ research found some of the men who created this gem. I hope you two can meet.

    When we lived in Alaska, we took the train to Denali Park to view the mountain up close. But fog prohibited that; so when we returned home to Anchorage, we went to my office, looked out the second storey window, and could see Denali from there – although it was several hundred miles away.

    • Deb Deb says:

      A lot of the men who created the Italian Chapel are well-documented through research such as Philip Paris’, which is a good thing. They should be remembered for doing something so extraordinary!

      Your story about Denali made me grin in rueful understanding – I’m glad you got to see it, albeit from a distance!

  10. Philip Paris says:

    My first visit to the chapel was on honeymoon in 2005 and I was hooked on the story before we even left the building. As my wife still likes to say, we spent some of our honeymoon in the library archives! Deb – that would certainly have been my historical fiction – The Italian Chapel. It was my debut novel and gave me my ‘big break’ into writing. I went on to do more research for a non-fiction book – Orkney’s Italian Chapel: The True Story of an Icon – and came across three chapels in the USA built by Italian POWs. These all still exist and there are some extraordinarily moving stories connected to them. Sadly, I didn’t find any of the key artists connected to the chapel in Orkney alive, but I did obtain a lot of informaton from the next generation. This included an amazing love story between the Italian blacksmith who built the beautiful rood screen and a local Orkney woman …

    • Deb Deb says:

      The story of the rood screen was told on the bus tour, so lovely. I didn’t know there were chapels built in the USA by Italian POWs as well. How wonderful!

      • Beverly Stafford says:

        I was too young to know about POW camps, but there was one in our area in Central California. My father was a truck driver during the war for a supplier of goods for that camp. The entrance to the camp was a very narrow double door gate; so the drivers who preceded Daddy had parked outside the fence, and the goods had to be off-loaded then carted through the gate to the kitchen area. The distance made this very time consuming. Daddy was a very good driver, eyeballed the operation, and said why not back the semi through the gate and off-load inside the camp next to the kitchen. They said it couldn’t be done, and when the POW’s found out what was happening, they were taking bets on whether Daddy would be successful. He lined the truck up, backed in, and had about an inch on each side of his mirrors, but he made it. From then on, he was the driver to the camp.

  11. Mary says:

    Thank you Deb once again for the beautiful pictures and wonder story. I always look forward to your columns

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