Campaign to aid BME church goes international
There was a $100 cheque sent in from a woman in the Detroit area who read about St. Catharines’ BME church in her small community paper.
Another donation came in from London, England, where it was featured in The Guardian. And still another cheque arrived from France.
Donations of $5, $10, $20 on up to several hundred dollars have been steadily trickling in to the historic St. Catharines church’s Go Fund Me page.
“It’s an international campaign now,” said Rochelle Bush, who’s heading up the campaign to preserve Salem Chapel, British Methodist Episcopal Church on Geneva Street, where Harriet Tubman worshipped in the 1850s.
“Big donations from a few people and a lot of smaller donations from many people.”
Since The Standard wrote about the church’s need for help on Oct. 26 — when the Go Fund Me page sat at $3,665 — countless media around the world have publicized the fundraiser and helped spread the word. The total now sits at just more than $34,000.
The church has a long way to go to hit its $100,000 goal for emergency repair work, along with hundreds of thousands more for accessibility upgrades and other fixes. But it’s enough to start at least one project.
Bush met this week with heritage consulting firm Archaeological Research Associates Ltd. of Kitchener to discuss the awning over the front door, which is the top priority.
It’s been propped up with temporary posts because of sagging on the left side since December 2016.
The cost of fixing the awning, believed to be 105 years old, won’t be known until an assessment can be done, but Bush said she’s hopeful the $30,000 will cover the initial investigation and the work.
Paul Racher, vice president of operations for ARA, said they won’t know how extensive the awning work will be until the group’s heritage conservation team examines it.
“We’re going to look at it and try to get a sense of what it’s condition is and whether it can be restored or if it’s going to have to be replaced,” he said.
Even without the connection to legendary Underground Railroad conductor Tubman, Racher said a building such as BME church is rare and there are very few African Methodist Episcopal and British Methodist Episcopal churches left.
“It’s an unassuming building in an unassuming neighbourhood and then you go inside, learn about the history of the place and it’s rather astonishing,” he said. “Sitting on the corner there.”
The BME church was built in 1855 by African American freedom seekers. Its last major work was in 1957.
Bush said she’s been in contact with all three levels of government to keep them informed of the church’s status, including St. Catharines Mayor Walter Sendzik, Member of Provincial Parliament Jim Bradley and Member of Parliament Chris Bittle.
“Even though the church is privately owned, I consider them stakeholders,” she said. “I consider a lot of the community stakeholders because there’s so much interest and concern for the church.”
She said she also wants to make sure she goes through all the proper steps and frankly, needs help. To that end, she said members from the city’s heritage committee will do a walk through in the coming weeks. They’ll spot check everything and prioritize projects that need to be done once emergency projects are done — repairing the awning, purchasing and installing earthquake cable wires and fixing the gables. The front steps have also become a concern after a crack that was repaired when a vehicle hit the church a few years ago has reappeared.
The priority list is something the church could do itself but again, Bush said she wants more voices at the table.
Bittle said his office is offering whatever assistance it can and is helping the church apply for federal funding opportunities.
He said he’s mentioned the project to the minister of heritage and her team as something that’s coming down the pipe.
“It’s something that we’re hearing from residents across the city because it’s such an important part of our community and such a significant historic landmark,” Bittle said. “It’s something that I know all of St. Catharines cares about and that I want to push hard for in Ottawa, but we’re waiting for the application to be made and we’re going to assist with what we can along the way.”
Bush said all three levels of government are assisting in finding funding.
In the meantime, the Go Fund Me page will continue and Bush said she’s heard from local groups who want to plan fundraisers on the church’s behalf for February’s Black History Month.
“I’m just so thankful that the church will be restored,” she said. “We just need the money to repair some of the areas that are damaged. She’s just deteriorating in some areas, which is sad.
“We’re doing our best, thanks to community support and international support.”
Rochelle Bush stands outside Salem Chapel on Geneva Street. The church with historical significance is in need of major repairs.