Julie Dompierre

First Baptist Church receives national designation

 

 

By Ron Giofu

 

A local church has received federal designation as a place of “National Historic Significance” on the weekend.

First Baptist Church, located at 232 George St., received the designation as part of a commemoration ceremony Saturday morning at the 148-year-old church. Representatives from the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada and Parks Canada were on hand for the designation and plaque unveiling, held in front of a crowd of about 100 people.

Pastor Olaniyi Afolabi, Rev. Ron Watson, Rev. Albert Lambkin and Dr. Barbara Hugh Smith stand with the plaque designating First Baptist Church as a place of “national historic significance.”

Eric Nielsen, Parks Canada’s manager of external relations for southwestern Ontario, said while it is Canada 150, it is also the 100th anniversary of Canada’s first national historic site. The recommendations, such as the successful one for First Baptist Church, are left for the federal government to decide, he added.

“It’s not just special to you,” Nielsen said of the ceremony. “It’s special to all Canadians.”

First Baptist Church is described by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada as being “a principal Underground Railroad-related Black church in Upper Canada. Strategically located near the United States border, it offered sanctuary to African Americans fleeing slavery.”

The church was constructed in 1848-49 and “was a spiritual home for thousands of Black Baptists and it helped foster the development of a distinctive Black Baptist church tradition in Ontario. As the Mother Church of the Amherstburg Regular Missionary Baptist Association, it played a crucial role in the development of Black communities and identity in Ontario.”

The church was built under the leadership of Pastor Anthony Binga Sr., who travelled around the area raising funds for its construction. Baptists had formerly met in local homes before deciding to build their own place of worship.

Julie Dompierre represented the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada and said they were proud to welcome First Baptist Church as a place of “National Historic Significance.” She noted the town’s place as a spot where slaves seeking freedom came to and built a new life.

Pastor Olaniyi Afolabi accepts another plaque from the Town of Amherstburg, which was represented by Deputy Mayor Bart DiPasquale.

“Amherstburg First Baptist Church is one of the most historically significant churches in Canada,” said Dompierre, who repeated the line for the crowd.

Dompierre said the “simple, compact auditory church” was one where Pastor Binga preached inclusiveness and the desire to build a better life and country.

“The legacy of this church is one of hope,” she added.

Deputy Mayor Bart DiPasquale said he is very familiar with the church and also presented a plaque to the church from the town.

“I strongly believe in this church,” said DiPasquale. “It’s pretty old. There are significant parts that had to be re-done. It may need help down the road.”

Pastor Olaniyi Afolabi said the church “has been through many ups and downs” including a flood in 2011 that caused the town to shut it down.

“Because of the flood, we lost members of our church but we have some left,” said Afolabi.

While there have been challenges, the church’s members have seen it through and the church re-opened. However, Afolabi said there is still work to be done including further interior renovations which, in part, include a new water heater and washrooms which need “a total makeover.”

“We are undaunted,” said Afolabi. “We see our church as victorious in the midst of strife.”

Rev. Ron Watson represented the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec and praised Pastor Afolabi and his wife Abiola for their work. He read an address from executive minister Rev. Tim McCoy which stated “Canada’s DNA was born in little churches like this and in little town’s like this.” Rev. Albert Lambkin, moderator of the Amherstburg Regular Missionary Baptist Association, said “this Mother Church has been through some pain and agony” but is on the way back.

Lambkin added many pastors have been through the building and also praised the Afolabis for their efforts in helping to start restoration work.

Dr. Barbara Hugh Smith, the great grand-niece of Pastor Anthony Binga Sr., said she was thankful that the plaque dedication ceremony finally came to fruition. She recalled first being notified of the possibility in 2005. She said she was thankful Binga didn’t rest and said she was similarly thankful the Afolabis didn’t rest either.

“I’m proud of him for what he did for the community,” Hugh Smith said of Binga.

The ceremony also saw numerous other ministers and priests from local churches attend. A reception followed at Royal Canadian Legion Br. 157.