Niagara Falls church was renamed after prominent Black musical composer


Published February 13, 2023 at 1:26 pm

Nathaniel Dett had the BME Church renamed in his honour in 1983, forty years after his death.

With its connection to Underground Railway freedom fighter Harriet Tubman, the Salem’s Chapel British Methodist Episcopal (BME) Church on Geneva Street in St. Catharines gets a lot of attention.

However, there’s also a Niagara Falls B.M.E. Church that, while lesser-known, has some impressive credentials behind it. In fact, it can make a claim that the St. Catharines one cannot.

The entire building, the third oldest church in Niagara Falls, was moved to its present 5674 Peer St. location on logs.

Getting back to that in a minute, it is also deserving of some recognition during Black History Month (and beyond) for a few reasons.

The B.M.E. Church in Niagara Falls, much like its St. Catharines counterpart, was built by the local black community in 1836, many of whom had escaped to Canada from the U.S. via the Underground Railroad.

The original land at Portage Road and Murray Hill was donated by Oliver and Matilda Pernell, both of whom arrived in Niagara via the Underground Railroad and the money for the move to Peers Street was supplied by Burr Plato, who also used the Underground Railroad.

The church was renamed as the Nathaniel Dett Memorial Chapel of the B.M.E. Church in 1983 after Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943), a parishioner, who became an internationally renowned musician and composer of North American sacred music.

Dett, who was born in Niagara Falls, was a world-renowned musician and composer, whose most played piece was a song called In the Bottoms. Dett wrote this piano piece for the students he taught musically in 1913.

As for the church being rolled to it present location, here’s the story. In 1838, just two years after its construction, they had to relocate the church (the reason is uncertain) so the entire structure was physically lifted and pushed from its initial location to its present location on logs.

Parks Canada, which designated it as a historical building in 2000, describes the building as a “gable-roofed, three-bay, single-storey building features regularly placed openings. Its gable end features a quatrefoil window set above a modest entry porch flanked by lancet windows.”

The description continues, “Its open speaking box design and intimate interior speak to the close involvement of its African-Canadian congregation. Official recognition refers to the exterior and interior of the building at the time of designation in 2000.”

Nathaniel Dett British Methodist Episcopal Church at 5674 Peer St. in Niagara Falls as it looks today.

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