The Italian Chapel of Henllan
Henllan POW camp (Camp 70), near Llandysul is famous for the Catholic Church which the prisoners made out of a corrugated iron Nissen hut.
In may 1943, more than 1,200 Italians captured in Libya and Tunisia arrived in Henllan and were put to work on the land as far as Llanrhystud, Manorbier, Llandeilo and Carmarthen. They wore a chocolate or wine coloured uniform with yellow circles on the back and knees.
The camp was equipped with a hospital, theatres, football pitches, tennis courts, a bowling green, kitchens, transport units, washrooms and about 30 Nissen huts which housed the prisoners. The prisoners were well treated, organising an opera company and a swing band. During their leisure hours, they were allowed out and often stopped to chat with locals – some were even allowed to live on the farms where they worked.
Still, nothing could be as dull as the loneliness and the worry about their families back in Italy. The young men needed a place to find comfort in God. Camp 70 had no church. Although the commandant was sympathetic, he had no answers. The prisoners solved the problem. By volunteering to sacrifice one sleepingNissen hut, and doubling up in others, they would build a church. But with no official tools or materials, it would entail careful planning and difficult choices, like ignoring the ugly exterior of the hut. After all, the soul of a church lay inside.
Among the1200 prisoners were many talented and resourceful men. They salvaged cocoa, jam and corned beef tins, cartons and wooden packing crates, and took bricks from a derelict building. They traded craft work for cement. They recycled rusty nails and smoothed out empty cement bags and newspapers. Out of these unlikely materials, they built a chancel, high altar and dome, side altars and a holy water font. They rolled large tin cans into scrolls for pillars and cut silhouettes for candleholders They then streaked black paint over a white base to imitate marble, papered the walls and arches with cement sacks and hid the seams with strips of newspaper, gluing it all with flour and water paste. One of the prisoners climbed up an ivy-sided tower at the mansion where he worked to "borrow" the farm bell. Hiding it under his overcoat, he carried it back to camp, where it was hung on the roof in a newly-built campanile.
The glory of the church is the painted dome above the altar, along with the murals on the ceiling beams. In spite of decades of neglect, the colours are still true and beautiful. This is the more astonishing because the paints used were home made. Workers at the nearby woollen mill contributed tablets of yarn dye. Others gathered berries from woods and hedgerows, and saved tea leaves, carrot pulp and onion skins from the kitchen. All of this was mixed with a paste made from fish bones and pickling fluid.
The identity of the painter, Mario Ferlito, was not revealed until the mid seventies when a former POW came to visit Henllan and helped track him down. Then in the mid seventies, the children of Ferwig County Primary School visited the camp and were much taken by the church. They wrote to Mario Ferlito and in 1977 eight former POWs, including Mario, came to Henllan. From then on, they kept a steady contact. On seeing his work again, Mario is reported to have been greatly moved and to have said:
“Through the rainbow of my tears, I see the days of my youth opening in front of me like the pages of a book.”
Back in 1943, a guard had noticed the 21 year old soldier’s artistic talent and he had already painted scenery for camp theatre productions when he was asked to decorate the church. He spent three months on it, in his leisure time, often working by candle light into the night. “I had no drawing pad,” he said, “only sheets of writing paper. To measure, I used a little cord. One water color brush, I used only for thin lines and the faces ..."
Mario Ferlito died in 2008 at the age of 86 at his home in Ornavasso, on Lake Maggiore in Northern Italy.
The Society of Italian Ex-Prisoners of War set up a restoration fund to stabilize the building. The owners have jacked up the sagging roof and installed diagonal supports. Peeling paint and mildew are always a problem, but the roof has been made good and the walls have been wrapped in fibreglass. A white rose that had overgrown its walls and doors and was said to have helped protect it, has been replanted on either side of the doorway.
The tapestry of Henllan Church will not be finished until restoration is complete, but the cooperators with Providence are still at work. Mario Ferlito and the others are pleased, and they look forward to the day the restoration will be finished. "That poor church," Ferlito says, "so shy and full of sadness, it will be a window open on a dark time, as passersby can stop and turn their thoughts to the unhappy boys that once lived there and prayed for their salvation."
In Henllan Church young Italian prisoners found comfort in a time of war. Among their former enemies they found compassion, friendships were formed. Many years later, many more blessings came about through the curiosity and concern of children. The inscription over the door has been freshly painted:
"Questa e la casa di Dio e la porta del cielo" (This is the house of God and the Gate of Heaven).
If you wish to visit the Italian Church you need to make contsct with the current owner, Mr Thomson of Bro Hebog, Felindre, Llandyssul, SA44 5XL. Tel: 01559 371598.
SN35654022 located just off B4334
A similar expression of human faith and hope for the future can be found in Camp 60, Orkeny Island, Scotalnd where more Italian POWs built their very own church known simply as The Italian Chapel. More details HERE