March 24, 2017

Interactive exhibit brings to life special story of chapel built by Italian prisoners of war

The staff of the Indiana Historical Society in Indianapolis used this photo from August 1943 to re-create the interior of the Catholic chapel built by Italian prisoners of war at Camp Atterbury in Edinburgh during World War II. (Photo courtesy of Camp Atterbury)

The staff of the Indiana Historical Society in Indianapolis used this photo from August 1943 to re-create the interior of the Catholic chapel built by Italian prisoners of war at Camp Atterbury in Edinburgh during World War II. (Photo courtesy of Camp Atterbury)

By Natalie Hoefer

On the far west side of Johnson County Park in Edinburgh stands a small structure, just 11 feet by 16 feet.

Unassuming in stature, the little building is teeming with history. If its walls could talk, they would tell the story of the tiny structure’s creation in 1943 as a Catholic chapel, a small space of peace and spiritual respite built by several of the 3,000 Italian prisoners of war interned in Camp Atterbury during World War II.

In an ongoing, rotating series of exhibits called “You Are There,” the Indiana Historical Society (IHS) in Indianapolis has given voice to some of the possible stories the chapel walls could tell. Using a photo taken in late August of 1943, the history center has re-created the interior of the chapel. For the next 18 months, visitors can “step into” the scene and interact with actors portraying actual men who worked at or were interned in the camp.

‘Back to the Catholicism of the ‘40s’

“We didn’t even know about the chapel,” says Angela Wolfgram, an IHS exhibitions researcher. “That whole story was brought to us by one of our historical society members. … We thought that [the photograph] would be a really nice scene to re-create.”

The photo depicts three Italian prisoners painting finishing touches in the chapel, with U.S. Army chaplain Conventual Franciscan Father Maurice Imhoff standing in front of the altar.

Father Maurice is one of the persons “brought to life” for the exhibit. He is portrayed by Michael Redmond, a paid IHS actor who is also a member of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Indianapolis.

To portray Father Maurice, Redmond relied upon Wolfgram’s research and research of his own. He tracked down newspaper articles from the priest’s hometown newspaper. He also read correspondence between Father Maurice and his family. (Related: ‘Play along’ to get the most out of the Chapel on the Meadow exhibit)

“We have four weeks to prepare” for their roles in the exhibit, he says. “We do probably a half a semester’s worth of work in four weeks.”

Redmond brings more than knowledge to the role of Father Maurice.

“Being Catholic, your entire being is Catholic,” he says. “Everything about you is Catholic. That was one of the reasons I was attracted to playing the priest. And I have an understanding of what a priest is.”

For the actors not familiar with Catholicism, Father Jeffrey Godecker, a retired priest of the archdiocese, was brought in to give an overview of the faith.

“I was there for about two hours,” says Father Godecker. “A lot of it was to answer their questions about Catholicism [now] and Catholicism at that time, what Italian Catholicism would be like, what [the prisoners’] relationship with the chaplain was.

“I was trying to take them back to the Catholicism of the ‘40s, which would mean Mass in Latin. We talked about the two saints [portrayed in the frescoes in the chapel]—St. Francis and St. Anthony, Italian saints. Those would be the two saints for most Italians.”

Wolfgram says it was interesting for the actors to learn about the pope of the time, Pope Pius XII.

“It was fun learning about his involvement with different humanitarian efforts at that time and the official stance he was able to take on different things going on during WWII,” she says.

‘In prison, but the tone was different’

The very presence of the prisoner-built chapel speaks to the importance of the Italian POWs’ faith, says Wolfgram. The prisoners would had to have presented the idea to and sought permission from the compound director, U.S. Army Lt. Col. John Gammell.

“There could be a number of reasons why the men wanted to do this,” she speculates. “There’s the aspect that faith was a vibrant part of their lives back in Italy, and certainly the aspect that they’ve been in war for several years. Right before this, they were in North Africa, and they wouldn’t have been able to properly [celebrate] Mass or really any of the sacraments.

“There could also be some guilt—the fact that their families were in all of the turmoil that Italy was experiencing, various cities getting bombed, a lack of resources there. They were really experiencing no danger when they were here.

“Just the care that these men put into it I think really speaks to the great importance they were putting on this chapel.”

Wolfgram explains that the prisoners built the chapel with “material left over by the Army—the Army didn’t give them specific materials for this purpose. [The prisoners] wanted to, of course, dress it up” with frescoes and a painted marbleized look to the altar, she says.

Most interesting to Wolfgram in the roughly 15 months she spent researching the project was “learning about the culture that was developed at this prisoner of war camp, and how they were allowed certain freedoms,” she says.

“They were in prison, but the tone was just different than what I expected for a POW camp. They had recreation time. They had time to pursue hobbies. I believe it was in this recreational, off-time from their normal work that they were allowed to work on this [chapel]. …

“My understanding is that Lt. Col. John Gammell was very kind to these POWs. … There were certain regulations they were following through the Geneva Convention, just to make sure that these men were being treated well. But he really took it a step further.”

Although she could find no specific start date, Wolfgram believes construction of the chapel started in July of 1943 and took about six weeks to complete.

“By the time we get to early October, they actually have a delegate from the Vatican come and [celebrate] a Mass,” she explains. “But I feel it would have been consecrated before that, because I see reports of them starting to use it by late August. I think there was a period where they were working on it but still having Mass.”

Mass is still celebrated at the “Chapel on the Meadow,” as it has come to be called. Each year in August, the Italian Heritage Society of Indiana hosts a Mass, rosary and picnic by the chapel. Wolfgram credits past society president Dr. James Davita with providing information on the chapel.

“He’s Catholic and Italian,” she says. “He’s done a lot of research on specific parishes, and we know that [Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Parish in Indianapolis] has a lot of connection to what was going on in this camp. We’ve got some resources indicating [the prisoners] had a priest a few times before they had Father Imhoff full time.”

‘Come in and play along’

The format of learning about history by interacting with actors “in character” is called first-person interpretation.

Wolfgram says that of the nine characters recreated—including Father Imhoff, Lt. Col. Gammell, a few guards and five POWs—any two or three could be present at a time.

“The topics people could ask about could be a wide range,” says Wolfgram. “[The actors] would certainly be able to speak to the home front—the camp would have affected life for people in the area. They would have had interactions with the POWs some.

“They can speak to the Catholicism being displayed here—this is obviously a religious space. Also where these men have been before they were brought here, their daily life here, what they experienced back in Italy.”

Because not all visitors are comfortable with first-person interpretation, says Wolfgram, an informational section with audio and visual displays is available outside the chapel.

A St. Joseph’s Table Shrine is also on display. It provides information about the Italian tradition of celebrating St. Joseph’s Table to commemorate the saint’s feast day on March 19. The shrine is sponsored by the Italian Heritage Society of Indiana.

Redmond recommends that, to get the most of the chapel exhibit, visitors come prepared to leave the present behind.

“If people come in and play along,” he says, “if they allow themselves to be in 1943 and take us as we are, that we are who we say we are, it will be a natural outpouring of information.”
 

(For more information on the exhibit and the costs and location, log on to www.indianahistory.org. For more information about the Italian Heritage Society of Indiana, log on to italianheritage.org.)

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