Author: Melba Jewell

Introduction Author: Debra Nash-Chambers

Publication Date: 2006

Edited: 2022


Melba Jewell has been an asset to families and historians interested in the history of the Black community in Guelph. She has also been a valuable contact for the history of a pioneer settlement of former slaves who homesteaded in the Queen's Bush in Peel Township. Several families associated with the British Methodist Episcopal (BME) Church in Peel have family ties to the Guelph BME congregation. Ms. Jewell continues to be the historian for the Guelph BME, Church and she was a valuable contributor of genealogical and historical information to the late Linda Brown-Kubisch who wrote, The Queen's Bush Settlement, Black Pioneers 1839-1865.


One of the earliest Black settlements in Upper Canada was the Wilberforce Settlement near Lucan that dates from 1829, just two years after the Canada Company founded Guelph. By the 1840s, approximately 1,500 Black immigrants and 'fugitive' slaves lived in Peel Township within Wellington County.1 The earliest Black settlers were forced to become squatters in the Queen's Bush but what they lacked in material goods they compensated for with their tenacity and faith.2 The Black pioneers in Peel Township held church meetings in clearings in the woods, where socializing was followed by a camp meeting replete with a characteristic blend of singing and prayer. The meetings built a sense of community, as the participants would share a meal and trade produce and goods before returning home.


Several members of the Peel settlement migrated to Guelph to seek employment and attend the British Methodist Episcopal (BME) Church. Late-nineteenth century assessment and census records for Guelph indicate that an enclave of Black households emerged on the blocks surrounding the church property on Essex Street. These records reveal that by 1861, a Black neighbourhood was forming, and over the next two decades households headed chiefly by men employed as labourers or whitewashers were evident on streets such as Essex, Devonshire, Manchester, and Durham.3 Others gravitated toward the central business district and elsewhere in working class areas of town, but most Black Guelphites lived in modest dwellings near the BME church.4 Leo Johnson notes that the 1881 census reveals a Black population of 107 in Guelph and two-thirds of the Black residents lived on the blocks surrounding the Church.5


The British Methodist Episcopal Church became the institutional heart of Guelph's Black community. The BME Church was the Canadian equivalent of the Episcopal Methodist Church, which met the spiritual needs of many African-Americans in the United States. Several of the founders of the Guelph Church were fugitive slaves who came north to Canada West. In the mid-nineteenth century, the legendary Underground Railroad had termini in the Niagara Peninsula and the Windsor area. 'Passengers' filtered out across Canada West from these two routes. Like the Guelph BME Church, the one in Owen Sound, the Buxton BME Church in the Elgin Settlement near Chatham, and the church in St. Catherine's addressed the faith-based and secular needs of their local black community.


When the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was amended in 1850, the abuses of this law forced an increasing number of freed Blacks to come to Canada as refugees. Free Blacks identified as escaped slaves due to error or malice could be taken south to 'slave states' without jury trials and without an opportunity to speak in their own defense.6 The end of the Civil War in the United States and the addition of an amendment to the American Constitution which officially outlawed slavery made the Underground Railroad redundant and fewer African-Americans migrated northward to Canada. By 1871, the majority of Black households in Guelph were headed by individuals who listed Canada as their place of origin in the decennial census for Guelph. Weather they were foreign-born or Canadian-born, the Guelph BME Church helped members of the congregation celebrate joys and face adversity.7


The career of Rev. Addie Aylestock is a testament to the survival of the BME churches of Ontario and Guelph's Church in particular. When Rev. Aylestock came to the Essex Street Church in 1964, it had been without a minister form any years due to the financial difficulty of maintaining the Church and supporting a pastor.8 She was charged with rebuilding the congregation. Both her dedication and her personal history made Rev. Aylestock the best possible choice to preserve the rich history of Guelph's GME church. Rev. Aylestock had roots in the old Queen's Bush settlement in Peel Township, having been raised on a farm near Glen Allan. Before coming to Guelph, she served the BME Church in the United States and then in Africa before answering the call to meet the needs of BME congregations in Nova Scotia and Ontario. In Ontario, she ministered to Black congregations in Owen Sound and near Chatham at the Buxton settlement, prior to her arrival in Guelph.9


Around 1975, the BME Church was temporarily closed due to the loss of congregational participation. In October 1994, a new BME congregation, under the direction of pastor Erica Davis, held an official re-opening service.10 Thanks to the sacrifices and indomitable spirit of the congregation, the Guelph BME Church has survived to the twenty-first century.


Recollections of the BME Church in Guelph: 83 Essex Street



The British Methodist Episcopal (BME) congregation has an interesting history in Guelph.11 The original congregation consisted of escaped slaves from the United States and Black immigrants from other areas. In 1870, the congregation erected a wooden frame church on Market Street (now Waterloo Avenue). The Town of Guelph Directory for 1873 shows, "A place of worship on Market Street and entered from Essex Street." Pastor - Rev. Johnson. Trustees - Louis Bolden, Wm. Thomas, Eli Buckner.12


In a special edition of The Guelph Evening Mercury (July 20, 1927) celebrating the history of Guelph, a summary of Guelph's churches was written. The development of the BME Church was described as follows: "The congregation erected their present stone edifice, situated on Essex Street, in 1880, previous to that having worshipped in a frame church built by them."13 The Church was built with local limestone and the stone mason's signature (or mark) is located on a large limestone block, on the right front side (driveway), four stones up. The estimated cost of the building was two-thousand dollars.14 The Church had a seating capacity of two-hundred and the congregation had forty members. Public services were held at 11 A.M. and 6:30 P.M., Sunday school was held at 3 P.M., and prayer meetings were held on Thursdays.15


In the 1882 edition of the Guelph Directory, Rev. Funius B. Roberts was listed as the minister.16 Over the years, Revs. Moore, Collins, Miller, Townsend, Minteq, Oliver, Davis, Drake, Ly-Bertus, Lucas, Brooks, Snowden, Washington, Jones, Slater, Wright, King, Lucas, and S.D. Smith, were assigned to the pastorate.17


While Rev. Dr. Oliver was the pastor in the late 1880s, the parsonage (manse) was built.18 This building consisted of a 28' by 24' storey-and-a-half, rough cast building. The stonework was completed by the Church, and the carpentry and plastering by J. Lowry at a cost of five-hundred-fifty dollars. It was located to the right rear of the Church.


In 1927, Rev. Minter renovated the Church and installed the present organ.19 It was a reed (pump) organ made by the Sherlock-Manning Piano and Organ Company of London, Ontario.20 Over the years, the Church was renovated, repainted, and decorated. In 1895, Rev. Drake held the first conference of the BME Church in Ontario. Rev. King held the second conference in 1903.21 The Church made steady progress from 1917 to 1927, although the growth of the congregation was affected by several families moving to other cities.22


Historic Guelph V45P8

Vernon's Directory (1907) entry for Essex Street. (Image courtesy of Guelph Museums).



Some of the early members and congregational families were: Lawson, Crawford, Johnston, Duncan, Mallott, Kelso, Kelly, Hisson, Harrison, C. Bollen, W. Groat, Miller, Johnson, Rayner, Stickland, Jewell, Waldon, and Pannell. Financial Records from 1963 show that the following family names supported the church: Jewell, F. McCann, A. Brooks, D. Wilson, Aylestock, T. Eatmon, E. Krueger, E. Mitchell, Bunnaman, E. Lawson, R. Blackwood, Robinson, Linus, J. Critchley, and E. Cripps. Only seven of these fifteen families were Black, indicating the 'Peoples' welcome approach to Church services in this neighbourhood and community.



The Church had a wide centre isle, and the pump organ was in the front left corner of the sanctuary with a mirror situated so that the organist could see the congregation. There was a huge black pulpit in the centre of the sanctuary with three large, leathered chairs for the minister and guests. There were two rows of choir pews at the left front sanctuary near the organ, and three more choir pews on the right-hand side of the pulpit on the main floor (where the piano is now located). There was a two-foot-high wooden railing around the sanctuary and communion was observed from a kneeling position. A new communion table was purchased in the 1960s through the efforts of Rev. Ronald Blackwood.


The Church could seat a congregation of two-hundred easily. There was a high partition at the back near the front entrance. This area was used as an office and for materials storage. The Church was heated by a wood and coal furnace, and later an oil furnace was installed. In the 1990s, the Church converted from oil to gas heat. The Church was locked with a huge metal key about six inches in length, that looked like a jailer's key.


Over the years, minor renovations, made by the members and the congregation consisted of painting the wooden pews, removing some choir seats, painting the floor, and adding carpeting and wine-coloured velvet runners for the communion table, pulpit, and piano.


A building renovation campaign was sponsored in the early 1960s. The goal was set at 20,000 dollars, of which only half was raised through citizen and corporate donations. Consequently, building plans and expectations had to be altered and the following repairs were completed: a new roof, outside front lighting, a new door lock, a lowered ceiling and recessed lighting, new 'dusty rose' carpeting, a new oak Communion Table inscribed with "In Memory of Me", and updated electrical wiring and outlets. The results of the renovations were exhibited on Open House 'Revitalization Sundays' during the late summer.


A new Hymn Board was dedicated in September 1961, in memory of Percy C. Jewell who was retiring in his efforts to maintain the BME Church, and who acted as Trustee Board Chairman until his death in 1960.


Historic Guelph V45P9British Methodist Episcopal Church, Essex Street (side view). (Photo courtesy of Guelph Museums).


Remaining funds from the renovation campaign were allocated to the basement where partitions were erected and insulated walls were installed around the oil furnace and oil tank, washroom, and kitchen.


By 1965, the Church parsonage was in poor repair and could not be updated to City standards. The parsonage was demolished in consultation with the trustee board, congregation, and city officials.



The Church piano is estimated to be over 100 years old. It is a 'Studio' type, (Model No. 54914) produced by the Autopiano Company, in New York. In approximately 1947, the Sherlock-Manning pump organ was still in operating condition, and it is now stored in the Church basement. Hymns were sung from a red-covered small book called the "Hymnal." In later years, the Norfolk United Church donated approximately 50 blue-covered hymn books, which were used for many years. The congregation and choirs sang lots of gospel and Negro spirituals.23


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British Methodist Episcopal Church (front view). (Photograph courtesy of Guelph Museums).


Guest musicians such as trios, group singers from the Salvation Army Band, and other churches would visit and support our efforts. The Jewell Family Gospel Singers visited city churches and Sunday Schools and performed at special occasions.



Communion was observed on the first Sunday of every month. The minister would call the members of the congregation to come to the front of the Church, where they would kneel and meditate, and the sacrament would be served.



The service was similar to the one followed by the United Churches in Guelph.


YOUTH PROGRAM (1945-1950)

Mr. Bowman, a representative for the Watkin Products Company, offered Guelph children, and particularly children living in the Downtown area, a place to go on Friday nights. In a vacant storefront on Macdonnell Street, close to The Guelph Mercury, Mr. Bowman and other assistants conducted a program for children from 6:30 P.M. to 8 P.M. The children had singsongs, learned short Bible and gospel verses, read scriptures, and watched appropriate films or slides. Mr. Bowman would close with more music and treats, consisting of apples, oranges, ice cream or candy. Of course, the four or five dozen children would return the next week. Mr. Bowman moved his Youth Program to the BME Church around the mid-1940s, and it continued there for approximately five years.



The Big Sisters Association of Guelph commenced as "Gals and Pals," and operated from the BME Church. After about one and half years, it changed its name to Big Sisters, and continued to use the BME Church and basement for its programs until 1975, when space was rented on Quebec Street East, near the old Greyhound Bus Station (well before the Eaton's Centre). The first Executive Director was Cathy Collett, who, with some big and little sisters, supported some of the Church's programs.



Around 1975, the BME Church was temporarily closed due to the loss of congregational participation. The BME Church Conference retained ownership of the Church and rented it to various organizations and religious groups.


Improvements were made to the seating arrangements by exchanging the original wooden pews for more modern pews, which were then removed and replaced with metal chairs for more functional use.


A new BME congregation, consisting of 15 and approximately 60 guests, held an official re-opening service on Sunday, October 23, 1994, under the direction of Pastor Erica Davis.24 In the last several years, the BME has held events to celebrate Black History month in February. The BME Church shares its premises with a local Missionary Baptist Church group which has renovated the exterior and decorated the interior to enhance this place of worship.


Melba Jewell originally presented this essay as part of the Guelph Museums Church Tour, "Places of Worship Along the Speed." It was completed with the assistance of: Mary McLean, Researcher, Guelph Museum; Rev. Erica Davis, Pastor; and T.K. Lewell, Family Historian.



  1. See Linda Brown-Kubish, "The Black Experience in the Queen's Bush Settlement" Ontario History, LXXXVII, No. 2, (June 1996), p. 103-177.
  2. For a detailed description of the Peel settlement to 1865, see Linda Brown-Kubish, The Queen's Bush Settlement, Black Pioneers, 1839- 1865. (Toronto: Natural Heritage Books, 2004).
  3. See Debra L. Nash-Chambers, "One Step Forward or Two Steps Back? The Impact of Industrialization on Community and Family in a Small Industrial City: Guelph, Ontario, 1861-1881," Ph.D. Thesis, University of Guelph, 1988, p.111-112, 167, 213-216, 253, 343; and the following essay on Guelph's Victorian Black population : Rosaleen Heffernan, "The Black Society of Guelph". Wellington County Museum and Archives, n.d.
  4. Nash-Chambers, Ibid.
  5. Leo Johnson, "A History of Guelph, 1827-1927." (Guelph, Ontario: Guelph Historical Society, 1977), p. 229.
  6. John A. Garraty, The American Nation, A History of the United States to 1877, 2nd Edition. (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 387.
  7. See the 1871 manuscript census for Guelph, Ontario.
  8. George Thomas, "Devotes Life to Ministry Has Message for Everyone," The Guelph Mercury, April 25, 1964, p. 3. (Black History Collection, Wellington County Museum and Archives).
  9. Ibid.
  10. Vik Kirsch, "Guelph Church once refuge for slaves," The Guelph Mercury, November 8, 1994, p. 45.
  11. In 1873, the British Methodist Episcopal congregation was also known as the 'Coloured Methodists.'
  12. Town of Guelph Directory, 1873, p. 23.
  13. "Religious Growth of Guelph Shown by Fine Array of Stately Church: British Methodist Episcopal," The Guelph Evening Mercury, July 20, 1927, p. 50.
  14. Flora Bendo, "From Africa to Guelph," The Guelph Mercury, February 4, 2001, p. 81.
  15. Guelph Museums. Black History in Guelph and Wellington County. Available at museum/BlackHistory/religion.htm. (Guelph Directory 1882-1883).
  16. Guelph Directory, 1882.
  17. "British Methodist Episcopal," The Guelph Evening Mercury, July 20, 1927, p. 50.
  18. Ibid.
  19. lbid.
  20. Sherlock-Manning Piano Company Ltd. was known as: the Sherlock-Manning Organ Co (1902-1910); Sherlock-Manning Piano and Organ Co (1910-1930); and the Sherlock-Manning Pianos Ltd. (1930-1951). The Canadian Encyclopedia (Online Edition). Available at:
  21. "British Methodist Episcopal," The Guelph Evening Mercury, July 20, 1927, p. 50.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Many traditional songs, "Carried a spiritual meaning as well as an encoded message to help fugitive slaves escape by the Underground Railroad," noted Rev. Erica Davis ("From Africa to Guelph," The Guelph Daily Mercury, February 4, 2001).
  24. Vik Kirsch, "Guelph Church once refuge for slaves," The Guelph Mercury, November 8, 1994, p. 15.



Brown-Kubish, Linda. "The Black Experience in the Queen's Bush Settlement." Ontario History, LXXXVIII, No. 2, (June 1996):103-177.

Brown-Kubisch, Linda. The Queen's Bush SettIement, Black Pioneers (1839-1865). Toronto: Natural Heritage Books, 2004.

Ganaty, John A. The American Nation, A History of the United States to 1877 (2nd Edition). New York: Harper & Row, 1971.

Hill, Daniel. The Freedom Seekers: Blacks in Early Canada. Agincourt: The Books Society of Canada, 1981.

Johnson, Leo. "History of Guelph 1827-1927." Guelph: Guelph Historical Society, 1977.