Prehistoric sanctuary that holds mass once a year

The Italian War Memorial Church houses remains of Italian soldiers caught by Brits

In Summary

• Locals have no idea about the significance of the church and the history behind it

The Italian War Memorial Church
The Italian War Memorial Church

Italian and Kenyan flags fluttered at the entrance. Green, white and red ribbons hung in the interior of the church. On the walls are small signs indicating the name of each soldier and the battalion they served in, together with the place they died. The serenity of the shrine is enhanced by a tree-lined drive and manicured lawns dotted with cone-shaped trees against the backdrop of the scenic Nyeri Hill.

Five kilometres from Nyeri town is the Italian War Memorial Church, which houses the remains of Italian soldiers captured by the British Army during World War II.

The sanctuary, which has a hidden history, is the final resting place of 676 Italian soldiers. It has another structure beside it with remains of African soldiers, most of them of Somali origin, who could not be buried inside the church because of their faith.

The chapel is not your ordinary Catholic sanctuary. The building, which was constructed in 1952, still stands decades later. Its location was chosen with great care to make it the perfect resting place. A visitor will get a chance to see the unique and original items left behind by the World War II soldiers.

Locals have no idea about the significance of the church and the history behind it. Even today, they have little idea why this church hardly opens for services, and why it attracts so many Italian tourists. Unlike your ordinary Catholic church, where Mass is held virtually every day, Mass here is held once a year when scores of Italian families, friends and government officials throng the beautiful brick-walled compound to pay homage to their country’s fallen soldiers.

The interior of the church, which is not used for regular worship, has an Italian style and is a tourist attraction for wartime memorial enthusiasts.

It has appealing copper and bronze inscriptions. The Italian government and its nationals living in Kenya funded the construction of the church in 1952.

After construction, all the known remains of Italian soldiers in various graves in East Africa were transported to this magnificent architectural masterpiece.

In front of the rows of simple wooden pews, and just before the altar, is a marble-lined tomb. It is the tomb of Amadeo di Savoia Duca di Aosta, who was the senior Italian army officer in East Africa. His statue and military gear are fixed atop the grave. Amadeo was the commander of the Italian forces in East Africa when Italy declared war on the United Kingdom and France in 1940.

The Italian Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano, under Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, paid tribute to the fallen hero and praised him in his famous diaries as a person who was "humane in spirit".

“Simple in his ways, broad in outlook and humane in spirit; so dies the image of a prince and an Italian,” he wrote after getting the news of his death. Also detained in Kenya was Felice Benuzzi, an Italian writer who tried to escape in 1943 but later surrendered to the British.

Benuzzi, together with two other prisoners — Giovanni Balletto, a doctor, and Vincenzo Barsotti, a sailor — escaped from their camp and scaled Mt Kenya for 18 days with improvised equipment.

The British camp commandant was astonished at their adventurous escape after they came back to the camp, and as a reward for their adventure, they each received 28 days in solitary confinement.

Most of the captured Italian prisoners of war interned in British camps, where they were deployed to do civil infrastructural projects.

A special mass is celebrated every September 2, the official All Souls Day, according to the Catholic Church, in memory of the fallen soldiers of the war. Italian families, friends and government officials troop to this place on this day to commemorate the soldiers’ dedication to their country.

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