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The Human Spirit

Hope in difficult times

by Janice Ross

Suitable for Key Stage 3/4


To use the Italian Chapel in Orkney to consider signs of hope in difficult situations.

Preparation and materials


  1. Ask the students to describe the four seasons.

    Point out that we are moving towards summertime – hopefully, the days will be getting warmer and the cold days of winter are a long way behind.

    Ask the students to imagine what it would be like to live in a very hot place and then suddenly to find yourself in a freezing cold country.

  2. Read the poem ‘November’ by Thomas Hood, which describes the dark days of winter.

    No sun - no moon!
    No morn - no noon -
    No dawn - no dusk - no proper time of day.
    No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
    No comfortable feel in any member -
    No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
    No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! -

  3. Show the image of Orkney in winter.

    Explain that Orkney is a group of islands in the very north of Scotland. The islanders are used to the harsh winter weather, but when a group of 550 Italian prisoners of war were brought to Orkney from North Africa in 1942, the Orkney winter must have been a shock to the system.

    Show the image of the Churchill Barriers.

    The prisoners were enlisted to build the Churchill Barriers, a sea barrier to prevent any German submarines attempting to get through to the naval base at Scapa Flow.

  4. Of the 550 men, 200 were based at Camp 60 on Lamb Holm, a small uninhabited island. These men were from Moena, a beautiful rural area in the north of Italy.

    Show the image of Moena in Italy.

  5. Within weeks of their arrival on Orkney, the prisoners of war went on strike. Despair, loneliness, constant fear for the safety of loved ones back home and the freezing cold weather in winter wore down the men’s spirits.

  6. In 1943, a Catholic priest arrived on Orkney. He and the British major in charge of Camp 60 recognized the downheartedness of the men. They agreed that the men needed a place to worship and suggested that the men build their own chapel.

  7. It was difficult to get hold of materials, but the project gave the men a purpose and the opportunity to be creative. Two Nissen huts were converted to look like a chapel.

    Show the images of the front and back views of the Italian Chapel in Orkney.

    Inside, the plasterboard was painted decoratively.

    Show the image of the interior plasterboard.

    The wall above the altar shows a painting of Mary and baby Jesus. One of the Italians, Domenico Chiocchetti, copied the image from a postcard he had in his Bible from his mother.

    Show the image of the painting of Mary and baby Jesus above the altar.

    Among the ironwork, candle-holders were made from corned beef tins.

    Show the image of the ironwork.

  8. Building the chapel had the desired effect on the prisoners of war. They may still have often felt downhearted, for they were still deprived of so much, but building the chapel gave them hope and a purpose. Lovingly creating this chapel set them free and lifted their spirits. Orkney could still throw its foul weather at them, but now they had a place of beauty and peace to retreat to.

  9. The people of Orkney have looked after the chapel since the prisoners of war left. Over the years, Domenico Chiocchetti returned several times to patch up the paintings. Each year, about 100,000 tourists visit the chapel, and services and weddings are still regularly held there.

Time for reflection

Sadly, wars still bring sadness and despair to many throughout the world. Recent news has seen many refugee camps being set up so that people who have had to flee war zones have somewhere to live. Many people in these camps have lost everything. They have every right to feel sad and downhearted. However, even in these places, there are often signs of hope. Charities including Save the Children run gardening workshops in these camps, which enable people to grow flowers and food.

Show the images of gardens in Syrian refugee camps.

Read the quotation from a refugee in one of these camps: ‘When we garden, we feel happy because there’s something to do, such as water the plants. It just makes you feel like there is life. Where we’re from, we’re used to the view of greenery, [but] here, there’s nothing, it’s a desert. Even if we are to have little joys, they would make a big difference.’

The men who built the Italian Chapel and the people in the refugee camps have lived at different times. They have had different experiences, and the problems and issues that they have faced are different. However, they have all faced times of great sadness and hardship, but found hope in the darkness.

Ask the following questions.

- What do we do when we face difficult things?
- Are we people who will look for hope?

Dear God,
We thank you for the power of the human spirit to overcome the most difficult of obstacles.
Thank you for the courage and bravery seen in the people we have heard about in today’s assembly.
Please be with those for whom life is difficult at the moment.
Please help us all to help other people.
Please help us always to look for hope.

Publication date: June 2020   (Vol.22 No.6)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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