Harriet Tubman's former church will be preserved 'for future generations' after $100K grant

The 165-year-old Salem Chapel British Methodist Episcopal church in St. Catharines was in disrepair, and its supporters were fundraising online.

Niagara's Salem Chapel British Methodist Episcopal church has been in a state of disrepair

The church started fundraising in 2017, and needed thousands to meet Ontario accessibility standards. (Salem Chapel BME)

A 165-year-old Niagara church built by Harriet Tubman and other freed slaves will be preserved for future generations, says one of the trustees and historians behind its restoration effort.

Salem Chapel British Methodist Episcopal church in St. Catharines has been in a state of disrepair and was a safety concern.

Last week, the church was approved for a $100,000 grant through the federal Supporting Black Canadian Communities Initiative, says Rochelle Bush.

"We're very happy we received the funding," Bush told CBC News. "We are extremely grateful because the church will now be preserved for future generations."

"It's been a long time coming and it's been a struggle for us because we're low in numbers.

"There are a lot of safety concerns inside the Salem Chapel and that's why we applied for the funding, but more importantly, it's the home of the Harriet Tubman site in Canada."

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

The Salem Chapel 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.

"It will continue as a monument to the freedom seekers who arrived via the Underground Railroad, and of course it's a national historic site," Bush said.

"All the glory goes to God because we were awarded $100,000 to repair the Salem Chapel, the church that Harriet Tubman attended."

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

This photograph released by the Library of Congress and provided by Abrams Books shows Harriet Tubman in a photograph dating from 1860-75. (Library of Congress/Associated Press)

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.

COVID-19 will further delay start of repairs

The church was already undergoing restoration using money raised through a GoFundMe campaign, but that was halted because of COVID-19.

In spite of the urgency of the situation, Bush said restarting repairs will be further delayed because of the ongoing pandemic.

"Because of the shutdown, right now we're hoping it will take place after that," she said. 

"We don't know when we are going to come out of this shutdown. We're still in the 28 days. If they extend it, the project would be delayed, which is unfortunate.

"We didn't have any work done last year to the church with the GoFundMe money because of the pandemic, so we'll see."

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

According to Bush, the project has been divided into five parts.

But she said the staircase going from the sanctuary hallway down to the lower level will be first on the list when repairs start because "that's a major project, and it's structural."

Bush said she is grateful to her member of parliament who told them about the Supporting Black Canadian Communities Initiative and also provided a letter of support for their application.

"He was definitely behind it," she said.

"In fact, my MP Chris Bittle was the one who notified me about the funding so we're very grateful for him as well."

The initiative, the government website says, "provides capital assistance to Black organizations in Canada" to fulfill their missions and serve their communities. 

The maximum grant amount is $100,000, the site says, and projects have to be completed within a year. 


For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


With files from Samantha Craggs