St. Catharines Heritage

Our Built Heritage


Significant Individuals

Harriet Tubman and St. Catharines

1350145_origThis post was written by committee member ~ Gail Benjafield

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.

900044594Because 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.

For more information, or to make a donation to the B.M.E church, call (905) 984-6769 or link to or

Air Commodore Len Birchall – The Saviour of Ceylon – 1915 to 2004

A native of St. Catharines, Len Birchall graduated from St. Catharines Collegiate and joined the Lincoln and Welland Regiment in 1932. After attending the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, in 1937 he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Birchall flew defensive controls out of Dartmouth Nova Scotia and was attached to the Trans-Atlantic Ferry Command before joining 413 Squadron, which was operating out of the Shetland Islands, carrying out patrols off the coast
of Norway, as well as covering convoys to Murmansk, conducting commando raids, and antisubmarine patrols.

The Squadron was transferred to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in early 1942 and it was there where Birchall, as a Squadron Leader, prevented another Pearl Harbour, a sneak attack on the island by the Japanese. Birchall and his crew were concluding a patrol on 4 April 1942, when they sighted the Japanese fleet steaming towards Ceylon.
As the British air base on Ceylon lacked radar to warn of incoming attacks, Birchall was able to radio the location, speed, course, and composition of the enemy fleet to headquarters before being shot down by fighter aircraft and captured.

Not until after more than 3 years of torture as a POW he found out that his message was successful in reaching the naval base. He endured frequent interrogations accompanied by beatings. As a result of his signal, the British fleet was able to avoid destruction, the island was defended, and severe losses were inflicted on Japanese naval aircraft. His action earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross and the moniker ‘The Saviour of Ceylon’. During captivity in a Japanese prison camp at Yokohama he was promoted to Wing Commander.

He was released 7 September 1945 and returned to St.Catharines on 11 October. In 1946, Birchall was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire. He retired in March 1981 from the RCAF and joined the faculty of Administrative Studies at York University as Executive Officer. His accomplishments over the Indian Ocean halted the Japanese in their plan to close the ring in the southern Hemisphere. Winston Churchill called Wing Cmdr. Len Birchall an, “airman who made one of the most important single contributions to victory” in World War II.

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