Harriet Tubman's former church is in dire need of repairs

A little Niagara church built by Harriet Tubman and other freed slaves is falling down, and desperate volunteers say they need at least six figures to save it.

Organizers believe it's the oldest black church in Ontario

Harriet Tubman is shown in a photograph dating from 1860-75. Tubman was born into slavery, but escaped to Philadelphia in 1849. She lived in Niagara around 1851 to 1861, among other places. Now a church she helped build is in dire need of repair. (Library of Congress/Associated Press)

A little Niagara church built by Harriet Tubman and other freed slaves is falling down, and desperate volunteers say they need at least six figures to save it.

I have no doubt she and her brothers participated in building that church.- Kate Clifford Larson, author of  Bound for the Promised Lane: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero

The Salem Chapel BME (British Methodist Episcopal) church in St. Catharines, Ont., is in the heart of what was once known as "the Coloured Village."

In 1853, freedom seekers and freed slaves who arrived via the Underground Railroad laid the log frame. The church held about 200 people who sang and prayed in its wooden pews. Some of their descendants still attend today.

Now, the awning is held up by wooden posts, said Rochelle Bush, church historian. The rumbling traffic of nearby Geneva Street has shaken the 162-year-old wooden frame.

The church hopes to raise $100,000 for emergency repairs by next fall, but needs thousands more to meet Ontario accessibility standards. (Salem Chapel BME)

The congregation needs to buy cable wire or earthquake straps with turnbuckles to crank the wood tight again, she said. The upper balcony is beginning to break away from the walls.

We have to keep trying.- Rochelle Bush

Beyond that, the 11-member congregation needs thousands more to make the church accessible.

"The church represents a gateway to freedom for many, many African Americans who fled," Bush said. "It was a hub for abolitionist activity."

Black and white abolitionists supported the church, she said. Frederick Douglass also visited.

This photo shows congregation members of what formerly known as the British Methodist Episcopal Church in the 1920s. (Salem Chapel BME)

Without the repairs, "we're going to go as far as we can go" to keep the church going, Bush said. "We have to keep trying."

Niagara was a pivotal place for Tubman and the Underground Railroad. St. Catharines was the last terminus.

Tubman stayed in several places as she did her work, including a room in Philadelphia and a house in Auburn, NY, said biographer Kate Clifford Larson. Larson wrote Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero.

But Tubman also lived in St. Catharines from 1851 to 1861. She brought her family and many freed slaves there.

A bust and plaque commemorating Tubman stands outside the Salem Chapel, which is a national historic site. (Salem Chapel BME)

"I have no doubt she and her brothers participated in building that church," Larson said.

"There's something magnificent about it. There are areas where you can see beams holding up the church. It's built like a ship's hull, and it reminds me of those freedom seekers who fled with Harriet Tubman. They were ship carpenters. That's a skill they carried with them.

"I feel that connection when I'm in that church."

The group hopes to raise $100,000 by fall of 2018 for the emergency work. The chapel is a national historic site, Bush said, but it exists on private donations.

Rochelle Bush, Salem Chapel church historian, says noted orator, author, abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass once visited the chapel. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The chapel attracts about 4,000 tourists a year, mostly from America. But that only raises enough to pay the basic bills.

Volunteers of the Preserving Salem Chapel campaign have asked for provincial and federal money, Bush said. But there's no commitment right now.

Construction on the church began in October 1853. In Nov. 4, 1855, it was dedicated the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

The congregation dates back to 1814. Organizers believe it's the oldest black church in Ontario.

About the Author

Samantha Craggs

Reporter

Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She has a particular interest in politics and social justice stories, and tweets live from Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca