What you need to know:
- The gigantic structure is an architectural marvel, whose location was carefully chosen to make it the final resting place for the 676 soldiers.
- The church has massive, beautifully carved doors leading into a cool tranquil interior.
- Prince Amedeo died in Thika on March 3, 1942, after refusing an offer by the British to be held in England.
The Italian War Memorial Church in Mathari, Nyeri County, is a popular destination. In it rest Italian soldiers from the Second World War.
Located five kilometres from Nyeri Town, off Ihururu Road on a one-acre plot, the church provides a serene environment overlooking the town and the Nyeri hills.
The gigantic structure is an architectural marvel, whose location was carefully chosen to make it the final resting place for the 676 soldiers. It has a three-metre high perimeter wall, with a cabro walkway from the gate to the entrance. The manicured lawns are dotted with Italian cedar trees planted in a straight line all the way from the entrance. The church stands 15 metres high, 20 metres wide and 40 metres long.
A commemorative monument 6 metres high and 5 metres wide stands about 20 metres from the church in honour of 67 African soldiers, mostly Somalis, who could not be buried in the church because of their faith.
The Italian government built the Catholic church in 1952 as it sought a final resting place for its fallen soldiers, whom the British captured during World War II.
The soldiers, led by the Duke of Aosta, Prince Amadeo di Savoia, were captured in Ethiopia and sent to different detention camps in the East African Protectorate (now Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania).
While most of them succumbed to tropical diseases like malaria and tuberculosis, others were killed and buried in captivity between 1940 and 1946.
The Consolata Missionaries from Italy, who had settled in Mathari in 1902, donated a plot of land for the soldiers to build a church where they could bury their colleagues.
It later became the property of the Italian government under the management of the Nyeri Catholic Archdiocese.
The church has massive, beautifully carved doors leading into a cool tranquil interior.
The walls are designed like vaults, measuring 2ft by 1ft that serve as pillars.
Engraved on top of the vaults are the soldiers’ names, ranks, date and place of death.
The soldiers’ remains were exhumed and put in the vaults, which were organised according to the place of exhumation.
Some hold the remains of children who were born and died in prison, while others hold the remains of people who could not be identified and bear the inscription “Ignoto”, which means unknown.
In the middle of the altar is a marble-lined tomb, that of Prince Amadeo, who was captured alongside some soldiers and had the liberty of going back to Italy but refused, insisting he would buried where his soldiers were buried.
Prince Amedeo died in Thika on March 3, 1942, after refusing an offer by the British to be held in England.
Green, white and red ribbons (colours of the Italian flag) hang on the interior walls, symbolising that he was the commander of the army.
At the centre of the church, a statue of the general and his military gear stand facing the vaults with a message inscribed in Italian to his soldiers, commending their souls to rest in peace.
Despite it being a complete Catholic church with two confession boxes and two holy water stands, very few services are held in the church these days, although the Consolata missionaries offer Mass there in Italian once a year on All Souls Day, November 2.
Italian families, government officials, the church community and the public congregate in the church to pay tribute to the fallen soldiers.
In the past, the Italian and Kenyan flags have been flown at the church entrance.
Some of the soldiers’ families have come to take their bodies home, while others renovated the vaults and added the pictures of their loved ones.
Today, Consolata fathers who die in Kenya are buried in a cemetery just outside the church.