Facelift for historic landmark

By Don Fraser, St. Catharines Standard


St. Catharines’ only designated national historic site is about to get a modern facelift.

The British Methodist Episcopal Church, Salem Chapel, is a landmark of continental importance.

Built in 1855, it became a focal point for civil rights and the abolition of slavery in the 19th century.

Harriet Tubman, a so-called conductor on the Underground Railroad, lived near the Geneva St. church and was a congregation member for almost a decade.

Tubman and many others connected to the church helped bring countless escaped slaves to freedom in Canada. A good number settled in what is now Niagara and southwest Ontario.

Over the decades, the church has been a tourism attraction and black history landmark.

But it’s seen better days physically, with the last major interior work done in 1957.

Its roof and lower-level need major work, and holes can be seen in wood pieces along the wall.

Drab grey paint surfaces need attention and the building requires an elevator for accessibility.

New plumbing and electrical work is also needed.

“We are a small community group here, and we’re looking at a lot of work,” said Rochelle Bush, a volunteer historian at the church.

“We have limited, next-to-nothing resources, so efforts like this are always a community initiative,” she said.

“And we’re blessed here in St. Catharines because we have everyone on board.”

Coming to the rescue are Don Benoit and a small army of volunteer union tradespeople who are marshalling forces to give the BME new dignity.

The improvement project started when Bush approached the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades last fall for some help.

Local representative Benoit was thrilled to help get a team together to make the renovations happen.

The organization and many other trade unions have a consistent record of community service work and donations. To Benoit, it seemed like a perfect fit, and his union agreed.

“This is not only a church, it’s a place of real historical importance, it’s a big deal,” he said.

“When I came to inspect the church, we found it needed a lot more work than just painting,” said Benoit during a recent tour.

“It actually needed extensive work.”

Bush estimates the project will cost at least $150,000, with all of it to be done through volunteer work and donations. That figure doesn’t include work on the elevator.

The hope is that the project, which starts Monday, will be completed for the 100th anniversary of Tubman’s death in 2013.

Benoit said all of the Niagara building trade unions have been canvassed for volunteer help, and the response so far has been excellent.

“The plumbers, electricians, carpenters, everyone has been requested to pitch in,” he said, adding 16 apprentice painters will be part of the effort. “This is a full building trades union initiative.”

Church treasurer-trustee Ada Summers said she’s thrilled to see the church rejuvenated.

“I’m happy they’re doing this and pleased with the work about to be done,” she said. ‘It’s so badly needed.


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