The idea of sacred spaces has been with us since ancient days. Throughout the centuries, we have built temples to reach the heavens, made pilgrimages to seek knowledge, lived in the forests to connect with the earth.
Even now, we create personal areas for meditation and reflection, a way to reaffirm our thoughts and feelings, to experience peace within ourselves. While many connect sacred spaces with spirituality or religious practices, there are times it relates to a special event or memory.
We intuitively know when we have entered a sacred place. Tonight, I invite you to come with me to The Italian Chapel, located on the Island of Lamb Holm in Orkney.
The year was 1942 when 550 Italian prisoners of WWII, captured in North Africa, were taken to Orkney to work on the construction of four causeways named the Churchill Barriers. Camp 60 was home to these prisoners from January 1942 until September 1944. They were housed in thirteen huts.
Together, these prisoners improved their new home, building paths and growing vegetable and flower gardens. They wanted to build a chapel. Two prefabricated steel structures called Nissen Huts were joined end-to-end. The corrugated interior was covered with plasterboard to produce a smooth surface that could accommodate paint. Fortunately, Camp Commandant, Major Buckland, recognized that prisoner Domenico Chiocchetti was an artist.
Before he left Italy, Domenico’s mother gave him a small prayer card of the Madonna and Child by Nicolo Barabino. This card was the template for his painting above the alter. Domenico worked tirelessly to finish the chapel, but it was still incomplete when WWII come to an end. September 9, 1944, most of the Italian prisoners left the Island. Domenico remained on Orkney to complete the font.
Lord Lieutenant of Orkney, who owned Lamb Holm, promised the Italians that the Orcadians would care for the chapel. This promise was fulfilled.
In 1964, Domenico returned to Orkney with his wife to present the chapel with the 14 wooden stations of the cross. In 1992, fifty years after the they first arrived in Orkney, eight of the former prisoners came back to the Italian Chapel. Domenico could not join them for he was too ill to travel. He lived to the age of 89 and passed peacefully in his home village of Moena, in the northern Italian region Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol.
Letizia Chiocchetti, Domenico’s daughter, visited Orkney in April 2018 to present a carving in memory of her father.
It has been over seventy years since the completion of the chapel. Every year, 100,000 visitors come to this sacred space, recognizing that even in the most difficult of circumstances, we find ways to build resilience and hope.