For 18 months during World War II, more than 1,200 prisoners of war from Italy were detained at Letterkenny Army Depot in Chambersburg, many of whom had been captured in north Africa and in Sicily. When Italy signed an armistice with the Allies, the men became collaborators with the United States, working to help supply munitions on the warfront. Catholics among them, the men worked six days a week at the depot, and spent their evenings constructing a chapel known as “The Chapel of Peace.”
There in the chapel – dedicated on May 12, 1945 by Msgr. Amleto Cicognani, Apostolic Delegate to the United States – the men attended Mass, recited the Rosary, organized a choir and prayed for their counterparts and their loved ones at home. Father Thomas Johnson, pastor of Corpus Christi Parish in Chambersburg at the time, served as their chaplain and the men found support at the local parish, where they often attended activities.
The men – a total of 1,231 – were repatriated to Italy in the fall of 1945 after the war ended, returning to their home country and their families. Yet, a mainstay of their legacy at Letterkenny remains: a one-of-a-kind chapel that was a center of religious activity at the depot, and a historic site that now anchors the Franklin County Veterans and 9/11 Memorial Park.
In a gesture of gratitude for the care shown to their fathers and grandfathers more than 75 years ago, a delegation of 31 descendants of the former POWs gifted the Letterkenny Chapel and Corpus Christi Parish with several emotive pieces of art during a visit to Chambersburg in September.
‘May a Tender Thought Go Out Through Time’
During World War II, the Letterkenny Army Depot served as a munitions distribution site. When Italy signed an armistice with the Allies, most of the POWs pledged their allegiance and joined what became known as Italian Service Units.
As collaborators with the Allies, the Italian soldiers helped stock and ship equipment and munitions to the war front. On the weekends, they were able to leave the depot and participate in local events, including those at Corpus Christi Parish.
Excerpts of the soldiers’ letters and journals give a glimpse into treatment they experienced and the community they formed at Letterkenny, at Corpus Christi and in the greater Chambersburg community:
“We were missing one thing: a church. They gave us permission to build one, but only with second-hand, discarded material, and so we started off with great enthusiasm without paying attention to the labor and hours of work needed. There were about 20 carpenters who work on the church while there were five of us bricklayers and general workers who started on the bell tower. We held a race to see who would finish first. On 13 May ’45, after only 50 days of hard work, everything was done and what our eyes beheld was a splendid church in pure Italian style.” – Memoirs of PFC Aldo Lorenzi
“So, we also have our Chapel together with our theater, playing field and a small art show. In other words, a small community, and our numerous visitors can’t help but congratulate and pay us well deserved praise.” – Letter from PFC Giovanni Barbè.
“To all those who lived it and were with us, may a very tender thought go out through time, and may our affection reach them wherever they are!” – Script on a photo of the chapel belonging to SGT Domenico Censi.
As a sign of appreciation for the treatment of their fathers and grandfathers, and in honor of the 77th anniversary of the chapel’s dedication, 31 descendants of the Italian soldiers visited Chambersburg September 10 and 11 for a series of public celebrations that spanned the Franklin County Visitors Center, the army depot and Corpus Christi Church.
The group presented three pieces of art that illustrate Christ being taken down from the Cross. They were given by artist Aldo Mazzantini, son of POW Amilcare Mazzantini, on behalf of the Association for the Memorialization of Italian Prisoners at Letterkenny.
“The gifts are an expression of gratitude from the descendants for how their fathers were treated when they were here,” Father Allan Wolfe, pastor of Corpus Christi, told The Catholic Witness.
The flagship piece, “The Deposition,” is a statue in the new narthex at Corpus Christi Church. A corresponding ceramic tile and a painting are in the entrance of the Letterkenny Chapel.
Father Wolfe shared the unique positioning of the figures in “The Deposition” sculpture, as explained by the artist.
“Christ’s body is being taken down from the Cross, and it’s the melding of the Beloved and an Italian serviceman taking His body down after the Passion,” Father Wolfe said. “The artist explained that the suffering and Passion of Christ is connected to war. Christ is no longer suffering, but the consequences continue. The face of the solider is buried in Christ’s neck out of shame for the suffering that war causes.”
Corpus Christi parishioner David Sciamanna pointed out that a dedicated space was specifically constructed for the statue in the parish’s spacious new narthex, dedicated this summer.
“There’s no place at the Letterkenny Chapel to display the statue and the facility isn’t open every day, so we suggested that we dedicate a space for it in our new narthex,” he said. “The space was built especially for the statue, with lighting and structured steel.”
“The piece was blessed on September 10 while the delegation was here as part of the events that weekend. The 75th anniversary of the chapel dedication was supposed to take place two years ago, but we had to postpone because of Covid,” he said.
“The group was here in 2015 too, and they’ve grown since forming the Association for the Memorialization of Italian Prisoners at Letterkenny,” Sciamanna said. “They’ve searched Italy to find as many descendants of the prisoners of war as possible. So far, they have identified several hundred family members.”
Among the contingent to visit Chambersburg were descendants of more than a dozen POWs, as well as the Vice President of the Lombardy Region and the Deputy Mayor of Rhoton. The weekend included the opening of the “Letterkenny World War II Italian Prisoner of War Experience” at the Franklin County Visitors Center; the Historic Letterkenny Chapel 77th Anniversary Celebration Program at the chapel; a 9/11 ceremony at Franklin County Veterans and 9/11 Memorial Park; and an organ recital, Mass and the sculpture dedication at Corpus Christi Church.
Father Wolfe said the group hopes to return for the 80th anniversary of the chapel’s dedication in 2025.
“They said they want their organization to be dedicated to doing something for the present; not just remembering the past,” he said. “They emphasized how their fathers transmitted and shared their experiences once they returned home so their families would appreciate the goodness they received from the people here. The idea of the association is to continue transmitting that transformative experience.”
“It is wonderful to share the common bond of faith with our Italian friends, who have this special connection to Chambersburg and Corpus Christi,” he said.
(Chapel and artwork photos by Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness. Event photos courtesy of Corpus Christi Parish.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness