Harriet Tubman's church needs help

By Karena Walter, The Standard

It’s where legendary Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman worshipped in the 1850s.

Home to 19th century civil rights and abolitionist activity in Canada.

The place escaped slaves and free blacks from the U.S. came to put down roots.

But the historic BME Church in St. Catharines — which has stood on Geneva Street since 1855 — needs help if it wants to make it to the next century and beyond.

The gables are rotting, the awning is deteriorating and the building needs to be braced with earthquake straps.

“We want the church to be there 300 years from now,” said Rochelle Bush, who’s spearheading a fundraising campaign to preserve Salem Chapel, British Methodist Episcopal Church.

“She definitely needs a lot of work.”

Though an important national historic site, the church is privately owned and maintained by the congregation. There are 11 members.

Bush, the church’s historian, said the last major work was in 1957.

In the 60 years since, the to-do list has piled up.

The wooden awning over the front door had to be propped up with temporary posts last December because one side is deteriorating. Chains that hold it up are secure, but some of the wood has rotted and the fear is a heavy, wet snowfall would tear it apart.

The front steps have a large crack that was caused after a hit and run driver crashed into them a few years ago. Bush said an estimate put the replacement at $50,000, though other quotes were less.

Gables that run around the entire building are coming apart from the roof in some places and pieces of wood need to be replaced.

Inside the church, the balcony is starting to separate in the corners, which Bush said is likely due to the high traffic rumbling along Geneva Street. The church wants earthquake straps to secure the frame and would like them in place before construction starts on the new police station directly behind the building.

But even if the station wasn’t being built, Bush said they still want to see church secured.

“We need the preservation component in place for the future,” she said. “We need it to happen now, especially for the accessibility.”

The church is completely inaccessible currently to anyone using a wheelchair. Bush said the church needs an outside ramp, an elevator and other interior changes to make it accessible.

Other issues are large spaces between the balcony’s walnut timber floor boards and uneven steps going down to the basement.

The fundraising campaign is online at The goal is to raise $100,000 for emergency work by fall 2018.

That’s just the first phase of the fundraiser to pay for the gable and awning repairs and earthquake straps with turnbuckles.

Bush estimates at least $500,000 more is needed to reach Ontario accessibility standards by 2025.

Still more money will be needed for other repairs, let alone any cosmetic improvements which are at the bottom of the list.

She said the hope is the Go Fund Me page will reach not only Canadians, but Americans who are interested in Tubman’s legacy and want to donate to the cause.

The church welcomes about 4,000 tourists a year, mostly from the U.S.

Bush said visitors are predominantly African Americans, but they’re starting to see mixed groups including an influx of white southerners this year.

She said a lot of people think Tubman’s story ended in the northern states and she’s hoping the fundraiser helps educate people about Tubman’s journey to Canada.

“The word really hasn’t spread throughout the U.S.,” she said, adding it’s mainly Tubman advocates or enthusiasts who are aware of the Canadian connection. “You have to really be into her history and the Underground Railroad to know about it. The average everyday person doesn’t know that.”

Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland and escaped in 1849 but returned to the south many times over a decade to lead hundreds of freedom seekers north. When an 1850 American law allowed slave owners to recapture runaways from northern free states, Tubman led freedom seekers further north across the border into Canada.

She lived in St. Catharines from 1851 to 1858 in the neighbourhood where a new school now bears her name. She worshipped at the nearby Salem Chapel, then known as Bethel Chapel, African Methodist Episcopal Church.

The Tubman tourism to the church helps pay the bills, but can’t cover the repairs or restorations.

In addition to the fundraising campaign, Bush said the church will be working with Member of Parliament Chris Bittle to see if it’s eligible to apply for any grants.

She said many grants though, require matching funds so the church needs to raise money.

“We just want to make it happen. With the help of generous donors I think it will happen,” Bush said.

“It’s Canadian history and it’s a shared history.”

Bush said when the church was first constructed in 1855 it was built by African American freedom seekers, but that wouldn’t have been possible without the help of the local white community, especially the old St. Paul Street United Church which is now Silver Spire.

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