Description of Historic Place
The Nathaniel Dett Chapel, built in 1836, is a cozy single-storey building with medium pitched gable roof and green siding. It features stained glass windows in the Gothic Revival style, and a covered main entry, above which is a quatrefoil window. Also known as the British Methodist Episcopal Church, it is recognized as a central landmark with ties to Niagara Falls' Black community and the Underground Railroad.
The Nathaniel Dett Chapel was designated for its heritage value under By-law 8614, in the City of Niagara Falls and is also a National Historic Site.
The Nathaniel Dett Chapel, originally named the British Methodist Episcopal Church, is strongly connected to Black history in Niagara Falls and the surrounding area. Niagara Falls was well recognized as being a settling point for many people that escaped slavery in the United States via the Underground Railroad. A significant Black community was established in Niagara Falls and many of them were loyalists that fought for Britain at Queenston Heights during the War of 1812.
In response to the expansion of this community, the church was built in 1836 as a religious meeting place. In 1856, it was moved to Peer Street, a considerably more desirable location. The move, accomplished by rolling the building on logs, was funded by Burr Plato, a fugitive from the US who prevailed over racist attitudes and became the first elected Black man in local government, serving from 1886 to 1905. The Peer Street property was donated by Oliver Parnall (Parnell), a prominent figure in the chapel's captivating history, who had escaped slavery by swimming the Niagara River to freedom.
The building was renamed in 1983 after Nathaniel Dett, who was born in Niagara Falls in 1882. Dett was a world-renowned musician and composer and is credited with changing the image of Afrocentric music at the turn of the 20th century. The church's ornately carved organ, which dates back to 1897, is believed to be the original organ for the church and the one that provided the learning ground for Nathaniel Dett's early musical development. This building is the third oldest church in Niagara Falls and while it raises awareness of Black history in the area, it remains a culturally-significant nucleus for the entire community.
While the original clapboard of the exterior has been covered with green aluminium siding, its simple structure is reminiscent of the Upper Canada Georgian style. On the interior, which features most of the original work of the building, the windows were made of leaded glass, unique because they are solid colours rather than pictures of saints.
The building is centrally located in the Black community of Niagara Falls. Well-recognized names of Black families in Niagara Falls are tied to the church, even though they may have moved outside of the immediate neighbourhood, as many had descendents that attended the church. The Nathaniel Dett Chapel has had a strong connection with other Methodist churches in the circuit which included Hamilton and St. Catharines. In particular, the congregation of BME Salem Chapel in St. Catharines is strongly tied to the Nathaniel Dett congregation and is considered Nathaniel Dett Chapel's sister church.
The building has strong socio-cultural ties through its early role as a meeting place and consequently helped in the establishment of a Black community in Niagara Falls. Serving as a meeting place for many of Niagara Falls' earliest Black settlers and playing a crucial role in integrating escaped or emancipated slaves into the community, the church became a landmark for social activity and cultural expression. This community blossomed through the picnics, garden parties, conferences and various entertainments that were held at the church.
Inside the historic walls, the Nathaniel Dett Chapel, through its role as a religious meeting place, provides the members of the church with a strong spiritual connection to their Black ancestors. Through the addition of the Norval Johnson Heritage Library and the Nathaniel Dett Chapel's connection with the Niagara Black History Association, it helps to educate their young people about their proud Black heritage. The social development offered by the church has been empowering for individuals that have suffered much oppression.
Source: Heritage files, City of Niagara Falls.
Character defining elements that reflect the heritage value of Nathaniel Dett Chapel include its:
- 1897 organ, believed to be the church's original organ
- pictures of black notaries on the walls, including Nathaniel Dett
- 1888 bible which remains in the church
- location on land donated by historical figure Oliver Parnall (Parnell)
- stained glass windows
- mostly original interior
- simple structure, reminiscent of Upper Canada Georgian style
- central location among Black community
- its addition - the Norval Johnson library
- library resources as housed in the Norval Johnson library, which offers educational resources on Black history and encourages young people to learn about the heritage of the community