The British Methodist Episcopal church (or B.M.E.) at 92 Geneva Street, St. Catharines, has a storied past. And what a story, too! This modest church, also known as the Salem Chapel, was built in 1855 with the land being given to the congregation by major philanthropists such as William Hamilton Merritt and Oliver Phelps. Members from the St. Paul St. Methodist church helped in the construction of the B.M.E. church.
The B.M.E church was one of two places of worship members of the black community in St. Catharines, including the famous ‘Moses of her People’, Harriet Tubman. Tubman, born into slavery in around 1820 or 1822, helped to free well over 70 refugees from her home state of Maryland, and brought them to live in St. Catharines. Tubman and her family, as well as some of the refugees she brought here, would have worshiped in this church.
Tubman fled Maryland in 1849 with relatives and close friends; however, returned several times to rescue others from slavery, always leaving Saturday night in the dark so they wouldn’t be missed by their ‘owners’ on Sunday, their one day off. Tubman was a very tough woman, but she was diminutive and therefore no one suspected that she could pull off such a remarkable flights to freedom.
This year, 2013, marks the centenary of Tubman’s death, and many celebrations have been held in her honour. A banner showing her recognizable, well-worn face is on many downtown light standards. She was one of St. Catharines most eminent female residents during the years leading up to the American Civil War.
Because of Tubman’s fame in bringing her compatriots to the ‘Promised Land’, aka (Canada), the B.M.E church has become, without question, the most famous structure in downtown St. Catharines in connection to Black history. The church is the only heritage building that has three heritage plaques (as Provincial, Municipal, and Federal) which commemorate the building. The Horticultural Society and other community groups have donated time and money to beautifully landscape an area around adjacent to the church, which contains a bust of Tubman and an attractive bench for resting and contemplation. The B.M.E church is also host to many tour groups who are interested in this historical landmark especially from the United States.
Many myths surround Tubman’s history and her influence. More information concerning her life story can be found in Kate Larson’s revised book Bound for the Promised Land.