Sandwich First Baptist Church is the oldest active black church in Canada. A group of former slaves, led by Henry Brown, John Hubbs and Willis Jackson, began an informal church group in the 1820’s. In 1840 eleven fugitive slaves from the ‘Close Communion of Baptists’ organization formed the congregation.
They worshipped outdoors or in the homes of individual members until a logcabin was constructed in 1847 under the direction of Rev. Madison Lightfoot.
One acre of land was donated by the Crown for a new brick church on Lot 22 West Peter Street. Fugitive slaves worked to construct the new church with hand hewn lumber and bricks. The clay for the bricks was obtained from the riverbank and fired in a hand-made kiln. In August of 1851 the church was dedicated with Robert H. Jackson as pastor.
The church was a terminal on the Underground Railroad because it was situated near an ideal river crossing point. There is evidence that a series of tunnels and trapdoors helped facilitate safe arrival of fugitives. Individuals escaping slavery in America could make their way, with the assistance of members of the congregation, from their riverfront landing to travel by lantern light through secret tunnels and emerge in the cellar of the church. Following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in America slave catchers would venture into Canada in attempts to capture fugitive slaves and claim their bounty.
In the event that a slave catcher would arrive in the church a rehearsed plan would go into effect. It is said that the pastor would raise the alarm by singing predetermined hymns such as “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” or “I’ll Fly Away to Glory”. Fugitives would then escape via a trap door in the church floor while the congregation created a diversion.
In 1986 Rev. Owen Leslie Burey became the pastor of the church. He led a campaign to see the church recognized as a valuable historic site. In 1998 Sandwich First Baptist Church was designated as a National Heritage Site. On June 14, 2003 a plaque was dedicated at the site with of Members of Parliament Susan Whelan and Sheila Copps in attendance. Rev. Burey remained as pastor until his death October 2, 2003. The site is still an active church with a dedicated membership and visitors to Sandwich First Baptist can still view the trapdoor in the church floor.