Page last updated at 14:02 GMT, Tuesday, 20 October 2009 15:02 UK
Prisoners of War's labour of love

Church of the Sacred Heart in Henllan
The altar and rail were made from concrete and wood.

Jon Meirion Jones recounts how Italian prisoners at a Prisoner of War (POW) camp at Henllan built a Catholic church - The Church of The Sacred Heart.

During 1941-42 a prisoner of war camp was built at the edge of the village of Henllan to hold a thousand POWs.

Because so many local men had joined the armed forces the prisoners would be a good source of manual labour on the farms of Mid and West Wales.

The camp buildings consisted of a hospital, theatres, football pitches, tennis courts, a bowling green, kitchens, offices, cells, transport units, storehouses, bathing facilities and 30 to 35 huts to hold the prisoners.

Through the rainbow of my tears, I see the days of my youth opening in front of me like the pages of a book.
Mario Ferlito

These buildings were all in an inner circle whilst the British soldiers and administrative staff were based in an outer circle, surrounding the inner circle.

During May 1943, more than 1,200 Italians arrived at Henllan - having travelled by boat to Glasgow from where they were captured in Libya and Tunisia.

From Glasgow, they then travelled by train through Derby and Gloucester to Henllan.

The prisoners had to wear a chocolate or wine-coloured uniforms with yellow circles on the back and knees of the uniforms.

Many of the prisoners worked inside the prison but many travelled as far as Llanrhystud, Manorbier, Llandeilo and Carmarthen to work on farms. Prisoners that conducted themselves well were then allowed to live on the farms.

In the camp, the prisoners organised football teams, sports events as well as an opera company and a swing band.

Many of the prisoners may have been pleased to be captured because of their antipathy to the warmongering policies of Mussolini, and Fascism in general.

There were three types of prisoner.

Church of the Sacred Heart , Henllan
Most of the resources were smuggled into the camp.

Fascists - insurgents who were willing to create permanent havoc. These were moved to specialist camps.

The second group of prisoners were those that worked with the British authorities according to The Geneva convention.

The third group of prisoners were those willing to work in factories to create arms and explosives for the Allied war effort.

But there was a spiritual gap in the prisoners' lives, and at their request, one empty hut was set aside for them to create a Roman Catholic church - but without any assistance from the British authorities.

One of the prisoners, 21-year-old Mario Ferlito was asked to paint a fresco above the altar and murals on the beams that spanned the roof.

The altar and rail were made from concrete and wood, the pulpit from Red Cross boxes and a lectern to hold the bible from old boxes.

But the greatest achievements were the creation of the pillars and candlesticks, which were made from tins of bully beef and cocoa.

The paint for the murals and fresco was made from fruit and vegetables and tea leaves mixed with a paste made from fish bones and pickling fluid.

Most of the resources were smuggled into the camp, and hidden in hair, boots and other hiding places!

Incredibly, the colours are still vibrant to this day, and the chapel is an attraction to former POW's, and other visitors.

At the request of pupils of Ysgol Y Ferwig , Mario Ferlito returned to Henllan for the first time since the war in 1977 to see his work once again.

When he walked into the church he told me:"Through the rainbow of my tears, I see the days of my youth opening in front of me like the pages of a book."

The Church of The Sacred Heart is the only religious building of its type that is still standing on mainland Britain.

Another church -The Church of The Barriers - still stands on an island in northern Scotland.

In 2007, I published a book recounting the history of the The Church of The Sacred Heart and Mario Ferlito, called Y Llinyn Arian (The Silver Thread).

Historic POW camp on the market
30 Sep 09 |  History
Italian PoW chapel founder dies
01 May 09 |  Mid Wales
The church Italian PoWs built
21 Oct 08 |  Wales


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