Its foundation was laid by former slaves who began new lives in Canada. Now the community is rallying to keep it from being forgotten
The modest wooden frame of the Salem Chapel British Methodist Episcopal Church was laid in the 1850s by former slaves as they settled into their new lives in Canada.
The stucco-clad gabled church soon became a focal point for the community; hosting not only worshippers but gatherings of civil rights activists and abolitionists – including the church’s most famous attendee, American Harriet Tubman.
Some 160 years later, the chapel in St Catharines, Ontario – built near the final terminus of the Underground Railroad’s eastern line – continues to hold service every Sunday. But the building has fallen into disrepair, prompting the congregation to launch campaign aimed at preserving this sliver of history for generations to come.
“It’s just amazing to be in this church and understand it,” said historian Rochelle Bush, whose great-great-great grandfather was the minister for a period when Tubman attended the chapel. “The historical importance of it, what my ancestors went through, how they built the church, how they survived and the generations that continue today just because of them.”
Believed by many scholars to be the oldest black church in the province of Ontario, the Salem Chapel was a potent symbol of freedom for the runaway slaves and free blacks who settled in St Catharines after the United States congress passed the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act.
The community’s numbers swelled as Tubman – who escaped slavery as a young woman and went on to lead around 70 slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad – brought over those rescued during her clandestine missions. Scholars say Tubman lived in the area between 1851 and 1861.
Like many other churches in the region, the place of worship did double duty as a hub for those fighting institutionalised slavery, said Bush. “This was their safe space. It was their place of refuge, it served as a meeting house for civil rights activity, a lot of abolitionists came through there.”
Prominent visitors to the church included John Brown, whose 1858 visit was aimed at getting Tubman to recruit people for his raid on Harpers Ferry, as well, the prominent abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
At its peak, the Salem Chapel counted some 200 members. Today its wooden pews host an ageing, diverse congregation of 11 members, who own and maintain the designated national historic site.
Some 4,000 tourists visit each year, and tours help pay the church’s bills. But the funds fall short of what is needed to address the structural issues that plague the building, from the rotting wood holding up the front awning to concerns that rumbling traffic nearby will shift the foundation.
In September, members of the church launched a campaign aimed at raising funds for emergency repairs. Donations have come pouring in from across Canada and the United States, to-date raising just over C$22,000 of their C$100,000 goal.
“To be honest it brings tears to my eyes,” said Bush. “Sometimes you think nobody cares about the church, they understand it’s a part of history but they’ve forgotten it. But they’re encouraging us to continue. It’s inspiring because they want the history preserved.”
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