Henllan POW Camp – Church of the Sacred Heart

Inside the Church of the Sacred Heart, showing the Last Supper painted on the dome ceiling by Mario Ferlito.

Inside the Church of the Sacred Heart, showing the Last Supper painted on the dome ceiling by Mario Ferlito.

Llansawel Senior Citizens makes several cultural excursions each year, made possible by the generosity of Llansawel Quoits Committee which for many years has donated the entire proceeds of the Annual Quoits Competition and associated fund-raising activities to the benefit of the group.

On Friday September 4 2009, the Senior Citizens had a trip to Henllan POW camp, near Llandysul, famous for the Catholic Church which the prisoners made out of one of the corrugated iron Nissen huts in which they slept.

The Camp
The camp was built during 1941-42 and, in May 1943, more than 1,200 Italians captured in Libya and Tunisia arrived there and were put to work, mainly on the land, as far afield as Llanrhystud, Manorbier, Llandeilo and Carmarthen.  They wore a chocolate or wine coloured uniform with yellow circles on the back and knees.

The camp was well equipped with a hospital, theatres, football pitches, tennis courts, a bowling green, kitchens, offices, cells, transport units, storehouses, washrooms and about 30 Nissen huts.  The prisoners were well treated, organising an opera company and a swing band. During their leisure hours, they were allowed out and often stopped to chat with locals – some were even allowed to live on the farms where they worked.   At their request, one hut was set aside for them to create a Catholic church – but the British authorities wouldn’t give any practical help with the project.

A closer view of the nave.  The candlesticks are all two dimensional, made out of flattened corned beef tins.

A closer view of the altar. The candlesticks are all two dimensional, made out of flattened corned beef tins.

The Prisoners
In a group of 1200, there were many talented and resourceful men.  They salvaged cocoa, jam and corned beef tins, cartons and wooden packing crates, and took bricks from a derelict building.  They traded craft work for cement.  They recycled rusty nails and smoothed out empty cement bags and newspapers.  Out of these unlikely materials, they built a chancel, high altar and dome, side altars and a holy water font.  They rolled large tin cans into scrolls for pillars and cut silhouettes for candleholders  They streaked black paint over a white base to imitate marble, papered the walls and arches with cement sacks and hid the seams with strips of newspaper, gluing it all with flour and water paste.

The glory of the church is the painted dome above the altar, along with the murals on the ceiling beams.  In spite of decades of neglect, the colours are still true and beautiful.  This is the more astonishing because the paints used were home made.  Workers at the nearby woollen mill contributed tablets of yarn dye. Others gathered berries from woods and hedgerows, and saved tea leaves, carrot pulp and onion skins from the kitchen. All of this was mixed with a paste made from fish bones and pickling fluid.

Mario Ferlito
The identity of the painter (Mario Ferlito) was not revealed until the mid seventies when a former POW came to visit Henllan and helped track him down. After the war the property had become a German resettlement camp, then briefly a secondary school, and after some years a  flourishing holiday camp site.  During this time the huts were neglected and fell into ruin, till only the church survived.  In the mid seventies, the children of Ferwig County Primary School visited the camp and were much taken by the church.  They wrote to Mario Ferlito and in 1977 eight former POWs, including Mario, came to Henllan.  From then on, they kept a steady contact.  On seeing his work again, Mario is reported to have been greatly moved and to have said (in Italian): “Through the rainbow of my tears, I see the days of my youth opening in front of me like the pages of a book.”

A painting of the Virgin Mary by Mario Ferlito hangs on the wall of the church

A painting of Christ bearing the cross by Mario Ferlito hangs on the wall of the church

Back in 1943, a guard had noticed the 21 year old soldier’s artistic talent and he had already painted scenery for camp theatre productions when he was asked to decorate the church. He spent three months on it, in his leisure time, often working by candle light into the night.   “I had no drawing pad,” he said, “only sheets of writing paper.  To measure, I used a little cord. One water color brush, I used only for thin lines and the faces. I had another bigger one for washes.”

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

Mario Ferlito died in 2008 at the age of 86 at his home in Ornavasso, on Lake Maggiore in Northern Italy.

The Society of Italian Ex-Prisoners of War set up a restoration fund to stabilize the building.  The owners have jacked up the sagging roof and installed diagonal supports. Peeling paint and mildew are always a problem, but the roof has been made good and the walls have been wrapped in fibreglass. A white rose that had overgrown its walls and doors and was said to have helped protect it, has been replanted on either side of the doorway.

An exterior view if the church before restoration.

An exterior view if the church before restoration.

Local Connection
There is a connection between Henllan and Llansawel.  Rocco Sisto’s father Guiseppe, was a prisoner there.  Guiseppe afterwards farmed in Gorsgoch before returning to Italy in his last years.  Rocco was born in Henllan Village after the war.  He of course runs the saw mill in Talley Village and until recently farmed a part of Penlan on the quarry hill just outside Llansawel.  He and Doreen live in Abergorlech.

A plan of the POW Camp

A plan of the POW Camp

Based on an article written by Jon Meirion Jones