So Small; So Lovely; So Many Tales to Tell. Nathaniel Dett’s Church in Niagara Falls

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After weeks of life getting in the way of adventuring, Louis, the two dogs and I set off on an unseasonably-warm, late December day to Niagara Falls. There we’d open the Niagara chapter of our quest to visit all the National Historic Sites in Ontario.

The Niagara Region—Niagara Falls, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Queenston and St Catharines rank second only to Toronto in the number of Sites that are of national significance.

Thank the War of 1812-1814 for that. Niagara’s close proximity to the U.S. in those bellicose days made it a predominant setting for battles during the War. Battles don’t catch my attention much. My chauffeur thinks otherwise. But unless he get his fingers flying over the keyboard, you’ll not likely get much musket talk from this writer. 

By the time we turned toward home, we’d visited 7 Sites. Come along with me to my personal favourite–the R. Nathaniel Dett British Methodist Episcopalian Church in Niagara Falls. It provided a welcome intermission from Yankees and the British Empire.

Escaping from Slavery

African Americans first appeared in the Niagara Region during and after the American Revolution, between 1765 and 1783.  Some had been freed from slavery; others remained chattels of white Americans loyal to the British Crown (Loyalists) who had relocated north of the 49th parallel.

The numbers of black settlers steadily grew with the success of the Underground Railroad. This humanitarian network of safety led American slaves to freedom in British North America. Many settled within a stone’s throw of the border. 

A House of Worship Rises

In 1836, the black community of Niagara Falls began construction of a modest church on Murray Street, close to the Falls. There they could give proper thanks to the God who had led them to freedom.

Modest in size and constructed of sturdy frame set on a stone foundation, the British Methodist Episcopal Church (BMEC) rose thanks to the efforts of its small congregation.

Only a single storey, with a minimum of ornamentation, the church gained softness thanks to a distinctive quatrefoil (four-leaf clover shaped) window above the modest entrance porch. Lancet (rectangular pointed) windows framed the doorway and lend a subtle elegance to the building.  

Inside, the Pastor preached from a raised dais in front of a sacred altar. The congregation sat on simple wooden pews.

But this beloved church was not without its failures. Located on Murray Street, in close proximity to the roaring Falls, BEMC was damp and clammy inside. Spray from the water made outdoor socializing on the way to and from church next to impossible.

BMEC was eventually deemed unsuitable. With no financial means to build another house of worship in a more suitable location, the church community came to a decision.

No strangers to labour, they freed the building from its moorings, hoisted it and placed it on sturdy logs. The British Methodist Episcopalian Church was then rolled on logs down the hill. It rested on a pleasant (and dry) property donated by a landowner, and near the present-day business district of Niagara Falls.

Honouring One of the Congregation

Music was, and remains a significant part of black heritage. Some of America’s most recognizable traditional songs, “Old Black Joe” and “Swing Lo Sweet Chariot” hearken back to slavery days.

Church services have long been a vehicle for black congregations to express their love of music—and their musicality.  In 1983, 130 years after its construction, the British Methodist Evangelical Church was renamed in honour of one North America’s most respected musicians and composers, Nathaniel Dett.

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Born in 1882 in Niagara Falls, Nathaniel was a musical prodigy. He learned the piano at an early age and by his early teens he was the organist at BMEC.

Nathaniel had also begun composing and integrated into his musical compositions influences from the Negro spirituals that he had learned as a child at his grandmother’s knee. Nathaniel’s fame grew and by the 1920’s and 1930’s he was considered among the most talented of “Negro” composers.

His compositions were a highlight of “the Coloured Program” that regularly played to Standing Room Only crowds at the Chicago Music Hall.

Nor was Nathaniel Dett’s genius for the concert hall only.  He wrote and performed sacred music. His magnum opus is the 1927 Religious Folksongs of the Negro.

The legacy of Nathaniel Dett is sadly marred by a racial incident which took place in 1937,  at the height of his acclaim. In a coup for racial acceptance, Dett’s composition “The Ordering of Moses” was to be debuted at Carnegie Hall in New York. The NBC radio network would carry the broadcast.

Part way through the performance, the radio program went silent. While no official explanation from NBC was ever given, it is believed that complaints received by the network from those objecting to the playing of African-American music at a “white venue” was the cause.

After Dett’s death in 1943, his body was returned to Niagara Falls where it is buried in the cemetery of the British Methodist Episcopalian Church.

In 1983, the church was renamed the Nathaniel Dett British Methodist Episcopalian Church. 

In 2000 it was designated a Site of national significance by Parks Canada. The honour comes as a result of its role in sheltering travelers on the Underground Railway as well as Nathaniel Dett’s legacy.

 

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