71 years ago a quiet corner of the Teifi valley in Ceredigion, West Wales, 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. (Some did occur: the Italian soldiers were handsome and slicked their hair with liquid paraffin or a gel they made from nettles.)
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 substances - vegetables, berries, soot, blood, mud, tea, coffee etc. were mixed with boiled fishbone glue and these were the colours he used to create the frescoes: the Last Supper above the altar with its collection of recycled-tin candlesticks, and a series of pictorial medallions along the roof beams (these are in my Flickr album, linked below.)
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 know 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 Mario Ferlito was rediscovered.
Mr Jones, the former headmaster, (who took us on the tour) was instrumental in contacting Mario Ferlito and became so caught up with the story that he has spent years researching it, getting to know the remaining prisoners and their families and making sure the church is preserved. He has collected information, memories and mementoes that the prisoners fashioned for local people as small gifts: a cigarette case from a pineapple tin, a ring from a thrupenny bit. He has even written a book about it, in Welsh. His bilingual presentation today was full of humour, interest and passion with the emphasis on the ingenuity of the homesick prisoners and the mutual goodwill between them and the community they found themselves in, rather than the religious aspects of the place. Much was made of the fact that the Welsh and Italian flags share the same colours: red, white and green.
(We were part of a large group of very elderly visitors, some of whom shared their own memories of wartime life in the area.)
Mario Ferlito, who has since died, 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.”
It's possible to find a good deal of information about Henllan online, for example here, and I've put up a Flickr album here which shows what remains of the camp with its original buildings including the church (not identifiable from outside), images of the interior, Mr Jones in full flow* as we gathered in the rain and finally some of Mario Ferlito's art work and a photograph of him on one of his visits to Wales.
* I think this was the story of the prisoner who was shown a scythe and told to mow a farmer's field. He picked it up and swung it - into the ground whereupon it snapped.
(There's a similar Italian POW church on Orkney and several more worldwide.)