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The Altar
(Sursum Corda) Spring 1999

Ruth Winne Roberts

Which was the more improbable, that a beautiful chapel would be constructed by Italian POWs in Wales, or that it would survive into the present?

Exterior of the chapel In the morning mists of West Wales crouched a forlorn hut, its corrugated roof sway-backed and covered with mold, its thin siding a checkerboard of scars, where time and wind had clawed at its tarpaper skin. A pair of overgrown white rosebushes blocked the doorway, as if to warn, "Do not disturb." just a temporary shack, last of the Nissen huts thrown together during World War II.

Stepping between the rosebushes, a trespasser of the 1960s would have found the interior no less discouraging. The ceiling hung in soggy sheets; vines trailed through broken windows; the walls were water-stained and peeling. But behind the little hut's stubborn refusal to die lies a story of faith, determination and Providence.

Older neighbors still remember the site as Henlann Bridge Prisoner of War Camp 70. From 1943 until 1946 the camp held Italian soldiers captured by the British during the North African campaign. After the war the property served as a German resettlement camp, and for a short time as a secondary school. For years it then lay vacant, the victim of weather, vandals and animals. One by one the rows of sleeping huts succumbed, all but this last evidence of the war.

If that had been the whole of it, the story could have ended there. But when businessman Bob Thomson bought the property in the 1960s he knew this shack was more than a sleeping hut. Inside, fighting off the mildew and invading vines, was a row of arches decorated with Baroque-style religious motifs. Classical Greek pilasters, appearing to be made of marble, lined the side walls. At the far end stood a marble altar, still adorned with cobwebladen candlesticks. The shack was an abandoned church.

Only one element, a fresco of the Last Supper painted on a shell-shaped dome by some unknown artist, remained untouched. The altarpiece cast down its blessing, as if waiting for the return of a congregation long gone.

Bob Thomson faced a dilemma. However dilapidated, the hut was an extraordinary survivor of the war, a Roman Catholic church. Thomson was not a Catholic, but he was a religious man, and a sensitive human being. He knew that this church had once offered a moment of peace to soldiers in times of distress. Yet, even if the crumbling building could be saved after years of lying derelict, it would take thousands of pounds to restore, money he did not have. And saved for what? The church no longer served a purpose. No one seemed to care about it, and it sat squarely in the middle of the enchanted spot on the Teifi River that he had chosen for his proposed campground. In spite of gnawing misgivings, Thomson knew the hut must come down.

Why he waited, Thomson does not know. "Perhaps," he says now, "I thought time would take care of it, as it had the others."

It never did, although years slipped by. As Henllan Campsite flourished and grew, so did the white rosebushes. They crept up the tattered walls to cover windows and doorway like a protecting presence. "This little hut with the chapel just carried on," Thomson says. "It stood up to all the storms, and you got to the stage where you felt it was supposed to stay."

Then, on Easter Day 1970, the Reverend W.J. Gruffydd, a well-known Welsh poet, paid a visit to Henllan Church. Moved by the tragedy of a war that made prisoners of fine young Italian men, Gruffydd pondered the fate of those unhappy boys, especially the unknown prisoner-artist. His poem on the subject, "Easter at Henllan was broadcast over the BBC and later published in a book, bringing a short burst of fame and a brief flurry of visitors to the abandoned chapel. But the enthusiasm soon waned and Henllan Church once again lay forgotten by all except Bob Thomson.

Chapel interior A few years later, Jon M. Jones, Headmaster at nearby Ferwig County Primary School, was reading his class a true story, "Yr Allor" (The Altar) by Dyddyn Owen. The tale told how Augustinian monks of St. Joseph's Church of the Golden Altar in Old Panama City defeated the Welsh pirate Henry Morgan's plan to pillage their church. On receiving word that Morgan was on his way to Panama, the brothers removed the table and valuable ornaments, covered the golden altar with whitewash, and waited. Morgan arrived, saw only a humble parish church and left, believing he had been misled about a treasure.

For more than a century few outside St. Joseph's parish knew the tale. In 1800 a visiting Welsh missionary heard the story and wrote of it to his family back home. For another century and a half his letter lay unnoticed, until Dyddyn Owen happened upon it, Jon Jones read the story to his class, and that slender thread from the past wove itself into the tapestry of events that followed.

When he finished reading, Jones asked his class to define altar. Few could. To a Catholic child this would seem strange, but most Welsh children are "chapel" -Presbyterian, Baptist or Methodist. Welsh chapels do not have altars. The class could have looked up the word in the dictionary, but Jon Jones wanted his pupils to experience an altar. They visited an ancient Celtic church, a medieval restoration, a Church of Wales (Episcopal) church, a modern Roman Catholic church, and finally the POW church at Henllan.

As Bob Thomson held aside the enormous rosebush to expose the door, he told the children of the other tarpaper-clad huts that had blown down or disintegrated one by one. "So it's a miracle this little one stood," he said, pushing back the door.

A miracle? It seemed an odd choice of words. But then, as the children entered, there was a hush. This was indeed a church. But no ordinary church. No amount of cobwebs and mildew could hide the beauty of the decorated arches, the marble pillars, and the high altar with its bank of candlesticks. Most of all, even chapel children could recognize the Last Supper.

The students were fascinated by everything they saw, but the mystery of the unknown artist tugged most at their imaginations. Who was he? What had become of him? How could he have painted such a work of art during the war, and in the middle of a POW camp?

Bob Thomson said he often wondered about the painter. For a long time he had asked around but no one seemed to know anything about him. Then, just recently, one of the former prisoners, Bobbio Pio, had come from Italy begging to see the church. Thomson asked if he knew the painter. Pio said he did not, but he was going to a reunion of POWs and he would try to find out.

Detail of a column "Well, Bobbio Pio was true to his word," Thomson told the children. "After some time I had a letter from Ornavasso in northern Italy, saying, 'I was painter who did painting in little church.' It was signed, 'Mario Ferlito."'

The ecstatic children wanted to know more. "Please," they coaxed the headmaster, "could we write to him?"

Jon Jones had reservations. The children might well be disappointed. Signor Ferlito could be bitter against his former enemies. He might simply not bother to answer. In the end, however, a letter was mailed off - and in that moment, perhaps, the thread joining past, present and future was firmly woven into the tapestry of Henllan Chapel.

Mario Ferlito's answer was prompt and emotional. "I did not realize the mystery I had left behind, and I could not believe that children of this modern, materialistic age would bother to study my work," he told them. The children had written their letter on the very day the one-time prisoners were meeting to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of their release. "In all those years it was the first direct contact I had had from Wales," Ferlito's letter said.

By another coincidence, the former POWs had just sent messages to the mayors of Henllan and the surrounding villages to thank them for their Christian understanding and kindness during the war.

The story of the prisoners and their church now caught the children's interest even more. And Mario Ferlito was a real, living person, someone they wished they could meet. "At that point, my own imagination began to work overtime," Jon Jones recalls. "Why not invite Mario and his friends to visit Wales? "

As he expected, the class pounced on the idea; but it was the parents who received the suggestion with surprising enthusiasm. Some remembered the POWs from their youth; a few had been among the prisoners who chose to stay in Wales to work and marry Welsh girls after the war. Many parents wanted to host the guests in their homes.

In 1977 eight former POWs, along with their families, accepted the invitation. Among them, of course, was Mario Ferlito with his wife, Maria, and Don Italo Padoan, the former camp priest. The guests found a true Welsh welcome. The children put on a program of song and entertainment. There were parties, concerts and teas. Families who had employed POWs during the war invited the guests to dinners. Henllan and surrounding villages held official receptions.

But the highlight of the week was the long-awaited pilgrimage to Henllan Church. The tangle of white roses had to be cut back, as nearly a hundred crowded through the door. Entering the sanctuary they had last seen as prisoners of war, more than one of the Italians had moist eyes.

After Fr. Padoan offered Mass, Welsh and Italian, Protestant and Catholic, young and old joined hands at a reception, "not as enemies coming to terms," someone remarked, "but as friends sharing memories of old times."

Mario Ferlito's emotions were in strange conflict. "Through the rainbow of my tears I could see the days of my youth unfolding before me like the pages of a book," he said. Viewing his work after thirty years stirred bittersweet memories. Looking into the eyes of the children who made it possible, he was overwhelmed with gratitude and love. He was saddened, though, to find the church in such pitiful condition.

For the children, the excitement of that memorable week was capped by the chance to hear the prisoners tell their stories.

Whistles and Rings

When the young Italian soldiers arrived at Henllan Bridge Camp 70 humiliated and dispirited, they were relieved to find that their fears of what might lie ahead in an enemy prison camp were unfounded. Instead of being half starved or forced into slave labor, the soldiers were treated with compassion and understanding. In time, as most of the internees cooperated, restrictions were relaxed. As the inmates were allowed to travel beyond the gates during leisure hours, they often stopped to chat with friendly Welsh neighbors.

There was a story about a POW officer who knocked at Lizzie Mary Jones' farmhouse door to ask for a cup of tea for himself and his men. When Lizzie Mary discovered that his "men" numbered thirty-two soldiers, she never blinked, preparing not only tea, but jam sandwiches from her meager larder. When she refused their offer to pay, the soldiers turned to work chopping firewood. (Lizzie Mary later brushed off a friend's reprimand for feeding an enemy. After all, she insisted, the soldiers were somebody's sons in an alien land.)

Some of the prisoners were assigned to jobs at nearby farms, where they lived with the families of their employers. Reminiscing that week, one of the Italians told how those prisoners took such pride in their positions that they pretended to be members of the family, snubbing other POWs who came for occasional day jobs. Somebody else remembered the soldiers working at Penbontbren Farm in Glynarthen asking for permission to use the farm kitchen "to cook a real Italian meal." The request was gladly granted by the lady of the house and the meal enjoyed by all.

Altar piece of the Last SupperThe Welsh neighbors also had memories. Jon Jones remembered that as a child of six he was befriended by a special prisoner who made sycamore whistles for him and rings out of shillings for the girls. He also recalled the POWs in their chocolate-colored uniforms riding bicycles "no hands on the handlebars" along the lanes, stirring the envy of the local boys and the admiration of the little girls. (As for the bigger girls, a handsome dark-haired soldier's stopping to chat might sometimes lead to a romance that would survive the war - as attested by several Welsh-Italian families present.)

Mario Ferlito had his own thoughts about Welsh hospitality. "Despite the barbed wire and all that went with it, there are memories I happily treasure," he said. "We found in Wales Christian tolerance unique to that Welsh land."

As a matter of fact, Welsh and Italian discovered that they had much in common. Through generations of oppression and hardship both had found comfort in music, especially in singing. Both lived close to the soil and held all of nature sacred. Both were deeply committed to family. And though they worshipped in different churches, it was with the same fervor and to the same God that they prayed.

Even the lonely leisure hours at Camp Henllan were filled with activities that would warm the heart of any Welshman, as the POWs organized football (soccer) teams, produced operas and musicals, formed an orchestra, and vied in contests to determine which hut could grow the best garden. No wonder respect and affection soon replaced any lingering suspicion between these people whom the war called enemies.

Still, nothing could dull the loneliness and the worry about families back in Italy. The young men needed a place to find comfort in God. Camp 70 had no church, and not a single unused building to convert. Although the commandant was sympathetic, he had no answers.

The prisoners solved their own problem. By volunteering to sacrifice one sleeping 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.

They salvaged cocoa, jam and corned beef tins from the cook's hut, cartons and wooden packing crates, scraps of discarded lumber, bricks from a derelict building. They traded craft work to a local contractor in exchange for cement. They straightened rusty nails and smoothed out empty cement bags and newspapers. 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 ingenious workmen built a chancel, high altar and dome out of cement-parged brick, sidle altars and columns from packing crates, a holy water font of concrete. They bent large tin cans into scrolls for Ionic capitals and cut intricate silhouettes to wrap around sticks for candleholders Remembering an old technique of fat graining, some of the soldiers streaked black paint over a white base to imitate marble. Others papered the walls and arches with cement sacks and scaled the seams with strips of newspaper, gluing it all with flour and water paste. Every scrap had to be begged, borrowed or recycled.

The children were fascinated by every tale, but it was the artist's story they most wanted to hear.

Mario Ferlito was eighteen years old when he joined the infantry, the youngest soldier in his unit. He had no chosen to take part in Mussolini's war. He dreamed of being an artist, not a soldier. But the Fascists threatened to harm his family if he refused. He was captured in North Africa, "without ever firing a shot," he proudly told the children.

On his arrival at Camp 70 he was photographed with a sign around his neck identifying him as Prisoner 252286, and assigned to work at a local farm. "Working in fields I did not do well," Mario said. "When I broke a scythe, the farmer, he gave me an apple and a shilling and sent me back to camp, saying I save his farm by not working for him!"

Self portraitMario Ferlito returned to Camp 70, where a guard discovered the young soldier's artistic talent and reported it to the commandant. He was invited to paint scenery for camp theater productions and, as a result of this success, to decorate the church. At the time, he said, he felt no particular inspiration. "I was not professional, a perfect self-taught person. As prisoner, dizzy and lost, I don't know how to turn. I don't have knowledge for important work. I think a Mysterious Hand - or maybe not so mysterious - guided my hand out of my will."

He spent three months on the ceiling decorations and fresco, planning, sketching, and finally painting every day after work in the refectory. Finding materials proved to be a challenge. "It as amusing," he said. "No drawing ad, only sheets of writing paper. It was difficult to imagine the whole work I had in my mind. No tools. Without rule. To measure I used a little cord. One water color brush, I used only for thin lines and the faces, perhaps smuggled into camp from school-bag of boy. The other was little bigger."

Finding colors was the biggest challenge. With no artist's paints he had to improvise. Friends who worked on farms brought tins of "most strange colors." Workers at a wool factory contributed tablets of colors used for dying yarn. Others gathered berries from woods and hedgerows, and saved carrot pulp, strong tea and onion skins from the kitchen. After much experimenting the palette was complete. Painstakingly, measuring with his string, he enlarged the small sketches, transferred them to ceiling and dome, and applied the improvised paints. The fresco was finished.

Over the years, as Mario Ferlito returned to a normal life back in Italy, he rarely thought of the work he had left behind, and he never dreamed of the interest it would someday create. Staring up at the altarpiece he said, "When I saw it after thirty years I was so amazed almost to doubt if really I made those paintings. And to think if it had not been for the children, I might never have seen this place again."

His pilgrimage was only the beginning of the consequences of the Ferwig school children's concern about an abandoned church and its unknown painter. Old friendships were renewed and new ones established. The children of Ornavasso school began to correspond with the bambini di Ferwig.

And in a tradition that lives on today, the candies at Henllan Church began to glow again on one day each spring, as Welsh and Italian friends return for a Mass of Peace in the little chapel.

Finally, the Society of Italian Ex-Prisoners of War has set up a restoration fund to allow Bob Thomson to stabilize the building. As contributions trickle in, he and his son Andrew devote countless precious hours picking away at the daunting task. They have jacked up the sagging roof and tastefully installed diagonal supports, "a big responsibility, because we didn't want to alter the original or destroy anything," Thomson explains. Restoring the cement-sacking arches was another major operation. "We had to take down the panels, lay them flat, and place weights on them for eighteen months to straighten the curled sheets with their precious decorations."

The work has been slow; donations dribble in; much more is needed. But the little church is beginning to breathe. Peeling paint and mildew are ongoing problems in the damp Welsh climate, but the roof has been made tight against further damage. Holes still scar the exterior walls, but the tarpaper no longer flaps in the wind, since Andrew Thomson recently wrapped the entire building in a new fiberglass skin. And Bob Thomson has dug up the white rosebushes that once protected the church from destruction, cut them down to size, and transplanted them in front of the new doorway.

While the heart of the church beats patiently, waiting for the next step in its healing, Mr. Thomson's neighbor Elsie Jenkins faithfully changes the Welsh daffodils that smile up at the altar candles sent from Italy. For the moment, at least, the once-forgotten treasure created by prisoners of war is safe from further harm, thanks to a few dedicated Italian POWs, Welsh friends, Bob Thomsom - and a group of Welsh children now grown to men and women.

"The Italians," Bob Thomson says, "put their hears and souls into this beautiful little church. This place means so much to the men who were prisoners here. We're so lucky to have it. And it's my job to keep it going." Nowadays, as news of the little church continues to spread, he often takes time from his busy day to show it off to groups of serious visitors (by prior appointment).

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 enemies they found compassion, even friendship. 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). +

Ruth Winne Roberts recently retired as a museum educator; she has special interests in Welsh and early New York history.

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You are here: Articles > History > The Altar  Back one page.

Home | New | FAQ | Search | Forum | Links

All contents © copyright, 1998-2020
The Catholic Liturgical Library