A Little Church with a Big History
The Italian Prisoner of War Church, properly known as Our Lady of Mercy, has been described as a “minor masterpiece of ecclesiastical architecture”.
The POW Camp was opened in 1942 and its purpose was to act as a recovery centre for the Italian prisoners captured by South African forces in East and North Africa. It was the Camp Chaplain, Padre Giacomo Conte, who suggested that artisans among the prisoners should build a Church in the Camp grounds to alleviate boredom.
Construction began, with a team of only 40 Italian prisoners of war living on the site in POW Camp 4, in February 1943 and was completed in March 1944. The Church took only 13 months to build, a remarkable achievement, in a frugal architectural style! The ceremony of inauguration, consecration and a pontifical mass was held on 19 March 1944 by the Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Van Gijlswwijk. He officially named the building the “Church of Madonna delle Grazie” (Our Lady of Mercy).
After the war ended the Church was abandoned and neglected, it was used by vagrants and an unfortunate fire incident damaged the roof of the historical Church. In 1962 after a visit from Father Anton Dovigo while on holiday in SA, funds were raised from the Italian Consulate and former prisoners for restoration of the Church. In 1977 the Church was declared a National Monument and later at a ceremony in 1998, the title deeds were symbolically handed by the Monuments Council to Mr Ciro Vacca, one of the church’s original builders.
The tiny Church in Epworth, Pietermaritzburg can accommodate 50 worshippers and every year, on the last Sunday of October, members of the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands Italian Community honour the homesick prisoners of war who were inspired to build a Church as a legacy of their faith so many years ago!
Admission is Free
Best during daylight hours, Church gates may be locked at certain times, it is advisable to contact the Church before visiting
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