The Italian Chapel by Philip Paris

They were brought to the island as ‘the enemy’ and by the time they left they would have developed relationships and connections that continue to endure today between the inhabitants of the Orkney Islands and Moena, the Italian mountain village where the artist and decorator Domenico Chiocchetti originally came from and where he returned after the war.

the_italian_chapelPhilip Paris has written both a non-fiction account of the short history of the Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm and this book, the novel I have just read and adored. The fictional form allows the author to imagine some of the relationships for which there is little detail and create others that may have been.

It is a war-time story without guns, battles and tragedy, it could even be said it depicts what war purports to be all about, a strategy to create peace and establish tolerance and what better conduit to promote acceptance than to build a chapel, whose sole purpose is for prayer and reflection, a sanctuary from the day-to-day reality.

550 Italian soldiers are captured during WW2 in Egypt and sent to Camp 60 on Lamb Holm, Orkney Islands where they live in ramshackle Nissen huts and are used as free labour to build barriers between the islands to prevent entry to the mainland from invading forces.

“The nearest land is mainland Orkney, which is also an island. You will know from your journey that we are a long way from Italy. You’re all here to do a job, to help build a unique set of barriers between mainland Orkney to the north and between the islands to the south of Glimps Holm, Burray and South Ronaldsay. Four barriers in all.”

In the opening pages, bulldozers arrive with instructions to raze camp 60 to the ground, leaving no trace of the former POW camp. The Italian Chapel sits there beside the Nissen huts awaiting its fate. We then learn the story of how it came to be there.

Image of the Madonna

Image of the Madonna

The novel introduces us to key characters in the camp, the artist Domenico Chiocchetti from the northern Italian village of Moena who keeps a small prayer card his mother gave him, with the image of the Madonna’s face in his pocket throughout the war, retrieving it at moments when he needed to escape the present, or remember the past and whose image will become a symbol of the thing he leaves behind, the only physical reminder that there was a POW camp on the Scottish island during the war.

We meet Aldo, who doesn’t talk about his family, but can source anything the men require, Buttapasta, a cement and stone artist, Giuseppe the romantic who had been a foundry worker in the US, they will all become instrumental in the project that occupies the men when the causeway barriers are complete and their status changes after Mussolini is sacked and the Italians are no longer the enemy. The men decide to create a chapel out of two unused Nissen huts and scraps from shipwrecks and whatever their captors can source.

The prayer card becomes the inspiration for Chiocchetti’s portrait of the Madonna and child, painted on plasterboard behind the altar.  An altar is made from concrete left over from building the Barriers, tiles are rescued from a sunken blockship ( a ship deliberately sunk to prevent access to a channel) and wood salvaged from a shipwreck is transformed into a tabernacle. Carved lanterns are created from Bully Beef tins and candlesticks made from the brass stair rods, all contributing to create a beautiful and peaceful interior.

Philip Paris author observing the Rood Screen built by Italian POW soliders

Philip Paris author observing the Rood Screen built by Italian POW soliders

It is a story of optimism, incredible resourcefulness and the things men do to keep their spirits up when the circumstances are against them. It is an easy, light read and moving without being overly sentimental and knowing this wonderful refuge actually exists made it all the more meaningful and special for me as a reader.

Philip Paris has researched this period in history and tried to track down those who were on the island or their relatives and creates a memorable and heartfelt story of tough times that are lightened by a mutual desire to build not just a chapel, but a refuge of incredible beauty that can still be visited today.

“It was the prisoner’s escape, a tunnel to spiritual and cultural freedom, while their bodies remained in captivity.”

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20 thoughts on “The Italian Chapel by Philip Paris

  1. Claire, my father (who was born in Sicily and served in WWII as an American) told me about this story a couple of decades ago, and ever since I’ve been wanting to know more about it. I’m amazed there is this novel and you’ve written about it. Thank you, I can’t wait to read it!

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    • There are two books Valorie, a non-fiction book and the novel. I came across the novel after someone recommended it to me and I loved it so much I wanted to know more and discovered there is also a non-fiction book as well. I have already purchased both as birthday gifts for family members, such a wonderful story.

      I am so happy to learn that you have heard of this story too, wow, how wonderful to have heard it from your father – there are amazing pictures that make me want to visit it and the special relationship that exists between the Orkney Islanders and the village of Moena today.

      I was just reading about the film The Great Beauty directed by Paolo Sorrentino and how the magnificent art of Italy can overwhelm the present and I thought to myself that while that may be, when the Italians were cast away (well, prisoners) on a barren island, they still used their amazing skills in the 20th century to try and recreate something of that magnificence even on a remote Scottish island. And they succeeded.

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  2. I remember a television documentary about the chapel some years ago and it stayed with me as something positive to come out of terrible wartime experiences. I shall definitely be adding this to the tbr list and if it is as good a read as your review suggests I might try and find a couple of other novels to pair it with for a future summer school as I’m sure the subject is one that would appeal to the readers who attend.

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    • Yes, it is amazing to read a wartime story without the battles and death, it is mostly a feel good story indeed. I think it would make an interesting summer school read and there is so much more to discover beyond the novel, the true story of what happened and those connections that endure today. It is also interesting that we never hear of these camps, the fact that they were razed supposedly to ensure that humanity forgets they ever existed.

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  3. A great review, Claire. I can tell from your post just how much you loved these books. I hadn’t heard of this story at all, but it sounds fascinating, very moving and inspiring.

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    • Thanks Jacqui, it’s not exactly literary fiction, but the story draws the reader in and I found it very easy to visualise the island and the men and their interactions and the cross cultural differences. I do enjoy these kinds of stories based on historical fact but where a novelist can breathe life into the characters rather than juts state the facts. It allows empathy to develop and it’s much easier to imagine how it may have felt to be there. I think it would make a great feature film!

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  4. The impact on PoWs is something less written about, it’s nice to have insight into what happens after the bullets have been fired. I think I will break my book duck for the year and pick this one up.

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    • Yes, who even knew there were POW camps in the Scottish islands? This wasn’t the only one and the fact it was Camp 60, well that suggests there were quite a few indeed. Good to know you’re considering breaking the rules for this one! It’s not a mainstream publisher, so I imagine it could do with a few readers talking it up 🙂 He sounds like an interesting author.

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  5. What a great story! I love that the author wrote both fiction and non-fiction on the same subject. I’m sure there must be other examples of that, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head.

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    • Yes, isn’t it great, it’s a story that is interesting in real life but I totally get the freedom that fiction gives an author to really imagine and enter the minds of the characters and pursue them in their desires and activities, especially when there is a love interest, one for which the true identity has been lost and a family that may not have wanted to talk about such things.

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  6. Hi Claire,
    Thank you so much for your kind comments about my books. I had no idea back in 2005 when I first entered the chapel that it would become so much a part of my life. My wife and I were on honeymoon in Orkney. We were there last month to mark the 70th anniversary of the chapel’s completion and met up with several family members of the key artists who built it, as well as Gino Caprara, now 94 and an ex Orkney POW. He had travelled over from Italy for the event. There were many tears shed during those few days together.
    Kind regards
    Philip

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    • Thank you so much Philip for sharing more of your experience, I love that you were so inspired by the story of the chapel and have shared it’s history through such a wonderful novel that really brings the characters alive. I sincerely hope someone makes a feature film about it, I can visualise it already!

      The anniversary must have been a truly special event and how wonderful that Gino Capara was able to attend and remember those who were part of its creation.

      I hope many more people read your wonderful books.

      Claire

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