St Magnus Cathedral captivated me.
The Cathedral; known as the ‘Light in the North’ and founded in 1137; is actually cared for by the council on behalf of the people of Orkney with the worshiping community being Church of Scotland so the answer to that thought is probably no.
The building is peaceful and warm and friendly and embraces you, the stewards were knowledgeable and unobtrusive and if you turn up on a Tuesday or Thursday, unlike us, you can climb up its tower and out onto the roof.
We actually went twice and I didn’t want to leave either time. After our second visit we went to the St Magnus Center which has an excellent presentation about the Cathedral, only problem was I then wanted to go back again – Hubby said no! In the center there is a Norwegian library which had this striking window.
During WWII Camp 60 on Lambholm Island was the home to several hundred Italian prisoners of war who had been captured during the North African campaign. The islands housed this large group of prisoners to work on the Churchill barriers blocking the eastern approaches to Scapa Flow.
The camp consisted of 13 cheerless huts, but soon the Italians transformed the place into an Italian square with pathways and flowers. While new amenities were created, a theatre, a recreation hut which included a concrete billiard table and a statue of St George made of barbed wire and covered with cement. While St George might seem a strange site on a Scottish Island for the Italians it didn’t speak of England but rather of their symbolic triumph over defeat and loneliness in captivity so far from home.
The War Office Inspector of PoW Camps urged that provision should be made for a chapel and in 1943 two Nissen huts were made available to the prisoners. The original plan was to use one as a school and the other as a church the huts where joined together and Domenico Chiocchetti (the creator of the statue) set about making a sanctuary at one end of the furthest hut. Using second-hand scrap and with the help of Buttapasta, a cement worker, and Palumbi, a smithy, they set about making a masterpiece of Christian art, faith and hope. Lining the corrugated iron with pasterboard, creating the altar, altar rail and water stoop out of concrete …
and of course Chiocchetti’s paintings are wonderful, the four evangelists:
Behind the altar is a representation of Madonna of the Olives by Nicolo Barabino, a copy of which Chiocchetti had carried with him all through the war. The bottom cherub on the left is holding a shield which is the heraldic badge of Moena the Italian town which Chiocchetti came from. The centerpiece is flanked by pretend windows of St Cathrine of Siena and St Francis of Assisi with a Dove on the ceiling above (you will see that on Sunday).
The Chancel look so wonderful it made the rest of the building seem drab and stark so permission was granted to line and decorate the rest of the building the walls and ceiling is covered with magnificent trompe l’oeil.
The Chapel wasn’t in use for long by the prisoners and over the post year wars it was a tourist curiosity and slowly started to show its age until in 1960 Chiocchetti was brought back to Orkney for three weeks to oversee the restoring of the paintwork and outstanding repairs. On 10th April 1960 a service of rededication was held and Roman Catholic services have regularly been held int he chapel ever since, including on 9th June 1999 a Memorial Requiem Mass in Thanksgiving for the life of Domenico Chiocchetti who died on 7th May 1999.
The place is a space of calm and peace and reverence, it oozes the prayers and hopes that have been expressed within its sanctuary. It has that quality that you can’t quite put your finger on or name, you can’t bottle or manufacture, something not quite of this world – aether.
Take thou thy shoes from off thy feet – nay more,
Bend a low knee if thou would’st enter here;
For a Real Presence lingers brooding near
This Holy of Holies on a storm lashed shore.
What prayer, what longings did these captives pour
Out to their God, when swift to calm each fear
Christ day by day stooped to His altar bier,
What time the priest the Sacred Host upbore.
Long years ago in Patmos’ lonely isle
Tarried St John expecting a far call:
Did he not pray for these in their exile?
And that dear Virgin Mother of us all –
She whose own heart had known the sword’s sharp fall –
Give them the tribute of her tears, her smile?
H Carlton S Morris