Italian POW church, Henllan :: Shared Description

In 1944 this quiet corner of the Teifi valley became the destination for 1500 prisoners of war, mostly Italian soldiers captured at or after the battle of El Alamein. They were transported by rail to a purpose-built camp beside the river and were put to work as agricultural labourers to replace the local men who were away fighting. Many had never seen a farm animal or implement - they came from a wide variety of social and geographical backgrounds. But the local people welcomed them and good relations were established although close fraternization was not permitted (although some did occur.)
Conditions were hard. The camp provided simple huts for accommodation plus a canteen and a hospital There was one priest but no place of worship. The prisoners asked if they could have one. A billet was emptied for the purpose but that was all. It was left to them to transform it into a church. They scrounged what materials they could, mostly old tin cans, cement bags and bits of timber, plus anything that could be begged from sympathetic locals.

It was noticed that a 21year old prisoner had been drawing on scraps of paper and as the sole artistic talent he was enrolled to provide the decor. He had two brushes and a piece of string to measure with, but no paints. So a variety of everyday material such as vegetables, berries, tea, coffee, soot, were mixed with boiled fishbone glue and these were the colours he used to create a series of frescoes: the Last Supper above the altar (with its collection of recycled-tin candlesticks) and a series of pictorial medallions along the roof beams.

The war ended, years passed and the camp was eventually decommissioned and sold, the huts being put to a variety of uses. The church however remained untouched and known only to a few, But back in the 70s a local primary school headmaster heard about it and took his class to visit as part of a project on altars. The children loved it so much they wanted to learn who had painted the frescoes. No one could say, until an ex-POW came visiting and thought he could trace the artist back home in Italy. And so the artist, Mario Ferlito, was rediscovered. He revisited the church in the 1977 and on seeing his work again is reported 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.”
by ceridwen

2 images use this description:

SN3540 : Altar and apse, Italian POW church, Henllan by ceridwen
SN3540 : Italian church, Henllan POW camp by ceridwen

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Created: Tue, 3 Nov 2015, Updated: Tue, 3 Nov 2015

The 'Shared Description' text on this page is Copyright 2015 ceridwen, however it is specifically licensed so that contributors can reuse it on their own images without restriction.

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