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The Miracle of Camp 60

The Miracle of Camp 60

As much as any grand cathedral, Orkney's awe-inspiring Italian Chapel, built by
prisoners of war, stands as a powerful monument to the human spirit.

BY PHILIP PARIS

Entering the chapel on the tiny Orkney island of Lamb Holm on the third day of our honeymoon, Catherine and I had no idea that the visit would change our lives. It was August 23, 2005. We were alone. The sun streamed in through the south-facing side windows, lighting up the inside so that the detail on the walls was both clear and clean; the dust particles hung in the air, unmoving in the stillness.

I knew nothing of the chapel's history other than that it had been built by Italian prisoners of war during the Second World War. I didn't know the Italians had been captured in North Africa after months of "cat and mouse" fighting between Montgomery and Rommel. I didn't know they had arrived on a barren island in the winter of 1942, swapping the searing desert heat for the fierce Orkney weather.

The Italians may have escaped the danger of battle, but where had they arrived? Who among them had ever heard of these islands in the north of Scotland? Why had they been sent so far from home? It was to be a long time before I understood how these men overcame despair and loneliness to create a monument to the ability of the human spirit to rise above extreme hardship and hurt; the monument in which we now stood.

But despite knowing nothing more than that the chapel had been built by POWs, Catherine and I sensed something of what had been achieved by its creation. We each carried the booklet that was available at the entrance. Neither of us spoke as we walked towards the chancel and gazed upon the images, the angels and cherubim, the white dove, the four evangelists. Our eyes were drawn constantly to the image above the altar: Domenico Chiocchetti's masterpiece of the Madonna and Child.

The full text of this article is available in the Winter 2013 issue of Scottish Life.

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