Cathedral Continues Long Social History: Was Underground Railroad Depot (St Paul's Cathedral, London)

Article excerpt

AMONG ITS claims to fame, the oldest church in southwestern Ontario has provided sanctuary to 19th-century slaves and 20th-century refugees, feeds hundreds of poor people and has blessed camels and earthworms.

St. Paul's Cathedral in London, Ont., was part of the underground railroad. On Aug. 11, 1855, 700 former American slaves celebrated their emancipation with a thanksgiving service at the cathedral. There is still an annual commemoration.

In 1998, St. Paul's provided legal sanctuary to a family of Iranian refugees. Abbas Golmohamady said he was arrested and tortured in Iran for distributing anti-government pamphlets. In 1995 he was being sought again when he fled with his wife, Shahnaz Sepehrinfar, and their young son to Canada. A second son was born here.

In Canada, the Muslim family converted to Christianity -- a capital offence in Iran.

Canada's immigration authorities, however, concluded that the Golmohamadys were not refugees and would not be persecuted if they returned to Iran.

However, the dean of Huron and rector of the cathedral, Bruce Howe, was sure their lives would be in danger in Iran. He got word to them that if they came and asked for sanctuary they would be taken in. They did. Then 30 London clergy joined Dean Howe for a press conference on the cathedral steps.

"If the police come they will have to arrest every one of us," said the dean. "We will do all in our power to have their application heard."

The government agreed to review the application and St. Paul's agreed that the family would not depend on social assistance for at least three years.

Within two months the federal government reversed its decision and allowed the family to stay. Today the Golmohamadys run their own business in London and are weekly parishioners.

The cathedral also has a long tradition of feeding the hungry. In the 1920s, a famine followed by a plague hit London and all the city's social services shut down -- all but St. Paul's.

Today St. Paul's spearheads a Daily Bread Program that accepts donations from restaurants, factories, grocery stores and a farmers' market. …