Norval Johnson Heritage Centre
Niagara Falls, Ontario

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Our Stories - Remembering Niagara's Proud Black History



Nathaniel Dett Memorial Chapel

The Methodist Mission had its beginnings following the War of 1812-1814 when Blacks met to celebrate victory. Early on, the members met in various homes until they were able to build a Meeting Place in 1836 at Portage Road and Murray Hill, a bleak and windy area of Niagara Falls, Ontario often referred to as 'the North Pole.' This area is in the old Drummondville section of the city.

The British Methodist Episcopal (BME) Church Conference of Canada was formed in 1856 with the Niagara Falls church joiningd as one of the founding members. The Conference was established following passage in the United States of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 when large numbers of Freedom Seekers came to Canada, in many instances pursued by agents attempting to return them to the United States as property. Bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Conference met and agreed to establish a wholly British/Canadian Conference where the churches could be used as sanctuaries. The minister, usually seen as a community leader, would seek the jurisdiction of the courts if fugitives were in danger of being returned to slavery. Headquarters for the early Conference were in Chatham, Ontario and this was known as 'the Mother Church.' Early records show that there were at one time 39 churches in the Conference with chapels as geographically disbursed as Winnipeg, Manitoba; Montreal, Quebec; Halifax, Nova Scotia and Bermuda, British West Indies.

The Niagara Falls Meeting Place building was moved to its present site, the southwest corner of Peer and Grey Streets in Niagara Falls, in 1890.

It was rolled on logs to the lot donated by Oliver Pernell, a man who escaped slavery in Maryland, USA and swam the Niagara River to freedom in Canada, and his wife Matilda.

In 1983, this church was renamed the Nathaniel Dett Memorial Chapel. R Nathaniel Dett (b. 1882 - d. 1942) was born in Niagara Falls and raised in this church playing the organ, that remains in the chapel to this day, for Sunday services throughout his teenage years. Dett earned his Masters and Doctoral degrees, becoming a renowned musician and composer. For many years, he taught in the Music Department of Hampton University in Hampton, Virgiinia, where he was also choral director of a choir that sang in a number of great halls in Europe during the 1920's and 1930's.

The Chapel was designated an historic site by the City of Niagara falls in September 1986 and in July 2000 was designated a National Historic Site by the Government of Canada.


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