The inspiration for this article began with a photo of the Cowra Chapel. After some research, I realised that this topic was much more complex. Prayers, Priests and Chapels begins with the patron saints of villages and is a journey of the Italian soldier and prisoners of war through their faith.
There might have been exceptions but it was reported that all Italian prisoners of war were Catholic. Evidence of their religious faith starts with the prayer cards they were given of the patron saint of their village. These prayer cards were taken with them to the battlefields, to the prisoner of war camps, to Australia and then finally returned with the men to Italy.
Domenico Feruilli’s Prayer Card (photo courtesy of Rossana Ferulli)
In Libya Roman Catholic Churches were built by the Italians before the outbreak of war. Did the Italian soldiers get an opportunity to visit these churches and pray? Did they light a candle for their safety in battle? Or maybe they made the sign of the cross as they passed by these churches on the way to battle?
Biagio di Ferdinando wrote, “During my travels from Tobruck to Bengasi, after Derna and Barce there were many beautiful villas, towns, schools, churches, all new.” (Odyssey by Biagio di Ferdinando)
1st March 1941 BENGHAZI. EXTERIOR OF THE CATHEDRAL OF THE SACRED NAME OF JESUS. SMALL BOMBS HAVE FALLEN IN THE COURTYARD BEFORE THE CATHEDRAL AND THE BLAST FROM HEAVY GERMAN BOMBS HAS SHATTERED MOST OF THE WINDOWS. (AWM Image 006539, Photographer Hurley, James Francis (Frank)
In 1941, the Apostolic Delegate for Egypt and Palestine had ‘Libro di Preghiere’ published in Palestine, with the permission of G.H.Q. Middle East. It was a prayer book distributed to Italian prisoners of war.
It included Preghiera Del Prigioniero as well as part of a prayer for the prisoners by Pope Pius XII. For many, this would have been their only book but it was a book to give the men spiritual guidance and comfort.
Libro di Preghiere (photo courtesy of Daniel Reginato)
In India, the men were given materials to paint and sew with. The men drew inspiration from their faith. Filippo Granatelli’s ‘Last Supper’ is one example.
Filippo Granatelli 16.11.42 (photo courtesy of Veniero Granatelli)
Many of the embroideries are religious in nature: the patron saint of a village, Jesus, The Sacred Heart, Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Giuseppe Polito: Rappresenta la Madonna degli Angeli, protettrice di Sacco (SA) il suo paese. (photo courtesy of Silvio Masullo)
Carved Wooden Statue of Madonna made by Isidoro Del Piccolo in Yol Camp India (photo courtesy of Ermanno Scrazzolo)
The Italians brought a little of Italy to the chapels in the British camps in India with elaborate decorations: paintings, statues, frescos and altars.
Prisoners Praying Camp 22 Wing 4 Bangalore (ICRC V-P-HIST-03474-10A)
Camp No 23 Bangalore Altar (ICRC V-P-HIST-03474-16A)
Worthy of note are the details of Our Lady of the Prisoner. The hat, the shirt with a black diamond patch, the shorts with the black strip; items which identified the men as prisoners of war have been meticuoulsy represented.
Our Lady of the Prisoner Bangalore Group I 12.12.1941 (ICRC V-P-HIST=03474-05A)
Bangalore Camp 2 View of the Altar in the Chapel (ICRC V-P-HIST-03474-20A)
Australia: In the Camps
The first group of Italian prisoners of war arrived at Hay Camp New South Wales in May 1941. A 1943 report and a 1944 photo records information about how the spiritual needs of the Italians were catered for at Hay Camps 7 and 8:
The prisoners of war of these two camps are all Catholics. Camp 8 has a chapel adorned with a beautiful altar carved in wood and having a harmonium. The chapel of Camp 7 is located in one of the refectories; it also has a beautiful sculpted altar and a harmonium. Each camp has a prisoner of war priest who provides regular worship.
Camp priest, Virgilio Iacobelli featured below arrived in Australia on 27th May 1941 with the first group of Italian prisoners of war. He served at both Hay and Cowra camps.
HAY, NSW. 1944-01-16. 45005 LIEUTENANT PADRE I. VIRGILIO IACOBELLI AN ITALIAN ROMAN CATHOLIC PRIEST, AT THE ALTAR IN THE CHAPEL OF NO. 7 COMPOUND, 16TH GARRISON BATTALION PRISONER OF WAR DETENTION CAMP. ALL THE CRAFT WORK IN THE CHAPEL WAS DONE BY THE PRISONERS. PLAYING THE ORGAN IS 45192 SERGEANT MAJOR VINCENZO COMMARATA. (AWM Image 063360, Photographer McInnes, Geoffrey)
To make way for new arrivals of Italian prisoners of war to Australia, Italians were transferred from the established camps at Hay to the tented camps of Cowra. Cowra Prisoner of War Camps for the Italians were under construction. In November 1941, photos and reports record the temporary chapel and arrangements for church services:
Each section has a large tent serving as a chapel, containing a pretty altar built for prisoners. The sacred candles, bread and wine are provided once a week by the local priest of Cowra. Religious duties are carried out by three prisoner of war priests. Recently, Cowra had a visit from the Archbishop of Sydney, representing the Apostolic Delegate in Australia.
Cowra Camp No 12 Section D Altar under Construction 12.11.41 (ICRC V-P-HIST-E-00216)
Giuseppe Raimondi from Amaroni (Catanzaro) served as priest at Cowra Special Camp 12 D before being sent to Victoria: V28 Attwoods, Myrtleford Camp, Puckapunyal and V22 Rowville. Raimondi was called as a witness to an inquiry into Captain JM Waterson and the fatal shooting of Rodolfo Bartoli at V22 Rowville.
Cowra Camp No 12 Section D The Chapel 12.11.41 (ICRC V-P-HIST-E-00215)
Cowra Camp A Altar in the Dining room 3.9.42 (ICRC V_P-HIST-E-00218)
Faustino Lenti from Milano had been a Missionary Father in India and served at Cowra Camps. Lenti was a charismatic and colourful character and by April 1944, it was reported: It is alleged that he controls a ‘basher gang’ composed of PoW… and that he employs a personal bodyguard for his protection. The latest information about him is that he fears an attempt will be made on his life. (NAA: SP196/2 443/1/5280)
Reports were conflicting.
Cowra Prisoner of War Camp Information Board (photo courtesy of David Ackers)
The Apostolic Delegate for Australia, Monseigneur Giovanni Panicio published ‘L’Amico del Prigioniero’ in1943. It is a prayer book written in Latin and Italian containing the service of the mass, important prayers, Catholic Calendar of Holy Days from 1943 to 1951 and hymns.
Having the book written in Italian and Latin is significant. Mass was said in Latin until the Second Vatican 1965. This book ensured that the Italian prisoners of war had a prayer book in Italian. This gesture was a significant show of concern for the spiritual welfare of the Italian prisoners of war in Australia.
Ermanno Nicoletti carved a piece of wood and turned it into a profile of his mother, while praying. Granddaughter Alessandra contemplates, “News of prisoners of war were scarce and at some point my grandmother almost lost faith that her son was still alive.” On the other side of the world in Australia, Ermanno ‘knew’ that his mother was praying for him and carved his thoughts in wood.
Wood Carving by Ermanno Nicoletti (photo courtesy of Alessandra Nicoletti)
Australia: Life on the farm
By the middle of 1943, the first Italian prisoners of war were sent to farm placements in the Hamilton district of Victoria and Coonabarabran district of New South Wales. This trial was successful and was implemented throughout Australia: Prisoner of War Control Centres: Without Guards [PWCC]. In the Notice to Employers of Prisoners-of-War given to the farmers as part of the employment contract there is this statement:
5. You will be required to see that the following rules are obeyed:-
(a) P.W. must not leave your property except-
(i) to attend religious services, for which special arrangements will be made by the Military Authorities; (NAA: D2380)
There are many memories of the Italians attending local churches. All manner of transport was used to get the men to church; bikes, horse and sulky, truck, car, on foot. It was remembered the Italians would go to church with the Catholic family on the neighbouring farm, as the host family were not Catholic. Children of the time remember the Italians walking to church in their ‘red pyjamas’ a reference to the burgundy coloured uniform the men wore. Some Australians remember with shame that the Italian POWs had to stand at the back or sides of the church and had to leave the mass before its conclusion. Others recall the beautiful singing voices of the Italians during mass.
Italians in the Boonah district of Queensland attended a Mission Church because they learned that the pastor, Dr Dwyer spoke Italian. The Italians would enjoy conversations with Dr Dwyer after service. Members of the congregation knew this was against the ‘rules’ and wondered if they would get arrested for their compassion. Father Steele from Beaudesert Queensland, assisted and nominated Paul Raffa with his application process to return to Australia. It was Father Steele who welcomed Raffa when he disembarked from the ‘Napoli’ at Brisbane in May 1949.
In June 1944, a special event was reported in the Gympie news: His Excellency the Apostolic Delegate, Most Rev. John Panico, has recently been visiting prisoners of war employed in various centres on the North Coast of Queensland. At Gympie he met a large number of them at St. Patrick’s Church, where he celebrated Mass. At 10 o’clock his Excellency addressed the people, speaking in Italian to the prisoners of war and tendering them excellent advice. The services of these men are greatly valued by their employers because of their good habits and their knowledge of rural industries. (1944 ‘Of General Interest’, Advocate (Melbourne, Vic. : 1868 – 1954), 7 June, p. 4. , viewed 12 Jan 2021, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article172213489)
However this event drew the ire of Smith’s Weekly whose headline was: Fascist “Guard of Honor” and made mention of ‘dago prisoners of war’.
Also criticized was a decision by Commonwealth Authorities to give a petrol allowance [petrol was rationed in Australia during WW 2] to farmers to take Italian prisoners to church. The question was asked as to ‘why such benevolent treatment was accorded “these dagoes”.’
A kindly gentleman, Cyril Blacket of Pinery South Australia met an Italian prisoner of war at his local church. With good intentions, Cyril tried to communicate with the Italian farm worker, via the Pidgin English for Italian Prisoners of War booklet the Italian had, but with little success. Blacket applied to the Department of Army for a copy of the booklet, only to be warned: PW are not allowed to fraternise with members of the public, PW Camp Order No. 13 Sec 68 (c). (NAA: D2380)
1946 Cowra Camp
In 1946, the Italian prisoners of war were withdrawn from farm placements and brought into the camps to await repatriation. It was during this time that two altar panels for the chapel were painted by Cowra Italian POWs.
Cowra Chapel 1946 (courtesy of Francesca Maffietti)
Back to Italy
Ippolito Moscatelli from Ospitaletto di Cormano (Milano) returned to Italy with photos of the Cowra Chapel. It is with special thanks to his granddaughter Francesca Maffietti that there is a record of the Cowra Chapel in 1946.
The altar panels survived. However they deserve a more detailed article.
How many other copies of this photo returned to Italy?
Have you seen this photo in your nonno’s collection?
Maybe you thought this photo was of a church in Italy?
Life as a soldier and as a prisoner of war was difficult. Some Italians were absent from their families for ten years. Those years saw the men always on the move. Life was a continual cycle of change.
One aspect of the men’s lives that did no change was their religious faith.
… prayer books, churches, chapels, paintings, frescoes, statues, embroideries, priests, photos, prayer cards, memories…