One of the earliest parishes to serve Freedom Seekers settling in St. Catharines in the mid-nineteenth century, the legacy of the Zion Baptist Church reflects the resilience of the community, that together, built new lives here and thrived as free people.
On this episode of History From Here, Sara takes you to the former location of the Zion Baptist Church on Geneva Street in St. Catharines, Ontario.
Freedom Seekers, or black refugees escaping slavery from the southern United States, sought refuge in Niagara as early as the 1820s and 1830s. To meet the needs of the growing black community here, missionary Reverend Elder Washington Christian established the first Baptist parish in St. Catharines in 1838. Over the course of a few short years, the congregation, consisting of almost all Freedom Seekers, raised enough funds to purchase a plot of land from local abolitionist and businessman, William Hamilton Merritt. With his financial assistance, the congregants built the Zion Baptist Church using their own tools and carpentry skills. It was constructed of a wood frame in a modest architectural design typical of other early churches built by Black community members in Canada at the time. The interior consisted of three sections of pews with Bible verses painted on the walls. The chapel officially opened in 1844.
Though on the outskirts of bustling St. Catharines, the area around Zion, by what we’re now familiar with as Geneva and North Streets, quickly grew to serve the needs of the flourishing black community. Known as Coloured Town, this neighbourhood was where, for the first time, Freedom Seekers could thrive as free people. Here, community members could purchase land and build their own homes, tend their own gardens, earn living wages, operate their own businesses, and form the social connections and activities integral to a vibrant community. The Zion Baptist Church was a major hub for such social activity in Coloured Town, organizing plays, pageants, picnics and providing resources and support for newly arriving Freedom Seekers.
In fact, one of the Church’s most well-known pastors was himself a Freedom Seeker. Born a slave in 1834 Virginia, Anthony Burns made his escape the age of 19, finding freedom and employment in Boston. However, his time as a free man was cut short when only a few months later, in May 1854, he was re-captured and tried under the Fugitive Slave Act. The decision that Burns would be returned to his owner in Virginia ignited the Boston Slave Riot of 1854, where thousands gathered in a protest against slavery. Eventually, Boston abolitionists would raise enough money to purchase Burns’ freedom and offer him a scholarship to pursue education in Ohio. After becoming ordained, Burns came to St. Catharines in 1860 where he became pastor at the Zion Baptist Church. Sadly, he died only two years later from tuberculosis. Reverend Anthony Burns is buried in Victoria Lawn Cemetery, where a plaque stands in his honour.
Despite facing numerous financial and leadership challenges throughout much of its history, the Zion Baptist Church, imbued with the resilience of its community, continued to serve as a place of welcome and worship until 1927, when the chapel closed its doors. The parish would eventually relocate a home on Raymond Street, which was bequeathed to congregation by one of its members.
The original Zion Baptist Church building was demolished in 1958. As with the fate of the chapel, little tangible evidence remains of the mid-nineteenth century Coloured Town neighbourhood, of course with a few exceptions, including the Salem Chapel. Instead, the descendants and the legacy of St. Catharines’ early Black community has woven itself through the fabric of the City and into our collective identity.