First Baptist Church, c1851
am on my way to Canada
That cold and distant land
The dire effect of slavery
I can no longer stand -
Farewell, old master
Don't come after me
I am on my way to Canada
Where coloured men are free
& Soul of Sandwich's Black Heritage
I was a kid, growing up in the richly diverse University area, I
went to most of the churches with my sister Shelley in tow within
walking distance of our home. I loved singing in the choir and tried
them all: Sandwich (now Bedford) United, Knox Presbyterian, Campbell
Baptist, Church of the Ascension and Central United. The joy of
singing was the only thing I took away from those experiences.
January of this year, when I discovered the Sandwich First Baptist
Church on Peter St. near Prince Road, I knew what I'd been missing.
When I entered the sanctuary, the hair all over my body stood on
end. There's a spirit in this church that's alive and I'm certain
it lies in the bricks of the structure itself.
original church (c 1820) was housed in a log cabin. When the congregation
decided to replace it with the brick structure, every able-bodied
male member of the congregation was required to make a certain number
of bricks using clay from the Detroit River. Many of these bricks
were made by slaves escaping through the underground railroad as
payment for a meal and safe haven that had been provided by a member
of the congregation. The church was completed in1851 after eight
years of hard work.
this time, American bounty hunters were still allowed to track down
slaves who'd escaped to Canada and they would invade Sunday services
in their quest. Little did they know that those escapees were always
seated in an area of the church where they could easily escape through
a passageway in the floor of the sanctuary. From there they would
make their way to the back corner of the church where a tunnel ran
all the way to the river's edge.
Victoria herself deeded the land for the church and graveyard (they're
still trying to find the graveyard) and the documentation is on
display in the church. The property ran from Peter Street all the
way to the river where the baptisms were held.
there is little to no documentation of the church's history to be
found. When the church was abandoned in the 1970's for nearly
ten years, the registry's pages to that date were torn from their
bindings. There are still some members of the congregation who are
descended from the original congregation but with little to no proof,
it is a bit frustrating for research purposes. They've recently
formed a History Committee that will endeavour to preserve what's
known of the Church's past for future generations.
the church hosts many Underground Railroad bus tours, especially
from the United States. These tours are usually lead by their volunteer
Pastor (yes, that's volunteer as in no salary), Owen Burey
or Charlotte Watkins (Watkins Street is named after her family),
a descendant of one of the original congregation members.
is a restoration/renovation program in progress, in which one can
purchase bricks to aid their fundraising efforts. Plans include
reaching farther out into the community by forming an Education
and Cultural Centre at the church.
the Sandwich Towne Festival (September 10 - 17) the S.F.B.C. will
celebrate their 160th Anniversary with full gospel choirs performing
in the church each night. On Sunday night a big church dinner will
top off the festivities.
cannot tell the story of this wonderful church without honouring
its Pastor. Owen Burey, originally from Jamaica, started his professional
career as a teacher. When his children were grown he decided he
needed a change and he literally found his "calling".
has been volunteer Pastor of the Sandwich Pastor Church since 1985.
He has helped galvanize the community to understand the historical
significance of this church and has tirelessly worked to preserve
it, ensuring the soul of the church lives on. In fact, thanks to
Owen, the church was designated a "National Historic Site"
by Parks Canada (in July of this year). Owen watches over a flock
of just over 20 families at the church. He resides with his wife
Detha in Chatham.
would love to find the escape tunnel and the graveyard and hopes
someday to come across someone with the proper sensing equipment
to locate them.
Burey is the reason I did the story of this church. He is
the spirit that has brought this church to our community's attention...
purchase membership bricks...
Sandwich First Baptist Church
P.O. Box 7087
Visit Sherrill Tucker's
Web Site - sherrilltucker.com
more black history, click here