Ontario church Harriet Tubman attended gets upgrades, to soon reopen for tours

Edward Roy Cassel Smith sometimes imagines his ancestors rejoicing on the balcony of Salem Chapel, the place where freed slaves first came to worship nearly 170 years ago.

A small church in St. Catharines, Ontario. – The home congregation of former abolitionist Harriet Tubman has been a special place for black Canadians for decades, says Smith.

“Black people celebrated here,” said Smith, a member of the church and a descendant of the freedmen who prayed there. “It’s a really special feeling.”

Salem Chapel British Methodist Episcopal Church is located near downtown St. Catharines, not far from the border. It was built in 1855 by freedom seekers who escaped slavery by traveling on the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes across the United States and Canada.

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The building is currently in the final stages of a renovation that had been postponed due to the pandemic. According to church historian Rochelle Bush, renovations to the floors, stairs and windows will be completed next month, after which regular tours can resume.

“I want all Canadians to know about this chapel and the often forgotten history of the Canadian Underground Railroad,” Bush said.

Tubman, who escaped slavery and later helped free dozens of other slaves, worshiped at the church when he lived in St. Catharines from 1851 to 1862.

The city and church were important sites for those who escaped slavery to reach the area, Bush said.

“In Canada, after leaving the southern provinces, we traveled by foot and horse-drawn carriage, but most of the time we traveled by train. I’ll get off,” Bush said.

“From there, you can either walk into town, or you can pay the carriage and go into town.”

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President Bush said one of her ancestors was a pastor in charge of the Salem Chapel, and Mr. Tubman traveled through the southern states into dangerous areas and brought freed men and women back to St. Catharines. said.

Under the Canadian Abolition of Slavery Act of August 1834, newcomers were considered free men and women in the North. US President Abraham Lincoln enacted the Emancipation Proclamation nearly 30 years later.

Underground railroad conductors like Tubman told the refugees to head to the Salem Chapel, Bush said. Afterwards, his members of Chapel’s community helped newcomers settle in, provided food, clothing and shelter, and found work.

Tubman eventually brought his mother, father, three brothers and other loved ones to Canada, Bush said. A descendant of the famous abolitionist British, she lives in Columbia, she said.

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass also made several stops at Salem Church in the area once known as the “Colored Village,” Bush said.

The church, which holds about 200 people, has faced some challenges lately.

In 2021, the Tubman statue in the church broke after being kicked to the ground. There have been other instances of vandalism and hate crimes reported to police by the church, including racist slurs spray-painted on the white walls outside the building.

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That same year, the federal government approved a $100,000 grant to the church. Bush said private donors and additional support from his GoFundMe campaign have allowed the church to renovate the deteriorating parts of the building. In addition, security has been strengthened by installing cameras and fences.

Once the building is ready to open to the public again, Smith and others associated with the church want to raise its profile while raising more money for future restoration projects.

“The church was always there,” said Smith, a church volunteer. His aunt was in the chapel kitchen making a fuss about whatever she was making, setting the table and yelling at us kids. From there”

“It’s where important things happened to our family.”

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When pondering the history of the Church, Bush said he often sits alone in the building, thinking about the people who have walked through its doors over the decades.

“I’d go in the middle of the night, turn off all the lights, and imagine what it would be like in the 1850s. No gas, no lights, nothing,” she said.

“The only light coming through the window is the moon. I just imagine.”

© 2023 The Canadian Press

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