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A downtown squeeze is pushing Grace Chapel AME Church across the Beaufort River and onto Lady's Island.'
The compact white church at North and Charles streets struggles each weekend with small quarters and parking aggravations for its 215-member congregation. Because of a lack of available land and an increase in members, the church is unable to increase services and ministries.'
"We like being in the downtown, the heart of Beaufort, but there's no space for expansion and no parking space," said Ruth Collier, a church member.'
With a growing congregation, church leaders are dissatisfied with the church's size, especially a network of small rooms with narrow, connecting capillary hallways in the rear of the church.'
"We can't expand the ministries because we do not have the space," said the Rev. Lawrence Miller. "The back area just does not hold that many."'
With a handful of other large churches within a two-block radius from Grace Chapel AME, downtown space is at a premium Sunday mornings as cars squeeze into spots and worshipers squeeze into pews.'
"I come early, I come before Sunday school so I can park in the post office parking lot," said church member Mildred Wilson. '
A vacant lot beside the church offers temporary parking, but it's only a matter of time, churchgoers say, before that land is developed too, and parking becomes even more difficult.'
To remedy the stifling space constraints, the church has plans to build a 400-person church on a 4.5-acre plot at the corner of Sam's Point Road and Holly Hall Road on Lady's Island.'
"We feel we have the mandate to do this, not only from the membership but from God ...," said Miller, referring to a unanimous 2001 decision by the congregation to relocate.'
Grace Chapel AME member Kenneth Singleton said besides increased space, another perk of the coming move is that the church will own both the building and the land.'
While Grace Chapel AME owns the church building that has sections dating back to 1858, nearby St. Helena's Episcopal Church owns the land.'
"Now we can use it for whatever we want to do," Singleton said. "During the civil rights movement, we couldn't have certain types of meetings. We could only use it for religious purposes."'
Design plans for the new structure are being reviewed by Beaufort County's Development Review Team, and Miller estimated that once approval is given, construction will take a year.'
Church members think that the congregation will grow in a new home, despite being out of town.'
"We believe that the members will go across the (Richard V. Woods Memorial Bridge). It's really not that far," said church member Sally Wilson. "The most important thing is they'll follow their leader."'
Driving an additional four miles to reach the church doesn't bother Collier, a Burton resident, who has been a member of Grace Chapel AME for 46 years.'
"I won't leave my church for nothing in the world," said Collier.'
The move away from downtown has been done before, such as the construction of a larger church on Lady's Island by St. Peter's Catholic Church in 1987.'
Community Bible Church began services in the city at Mossy Oaks Elementary School in 1982 and then shuffled locations a few times between Lady's Island Middle School and the Performing Arts Center at the University of South Carolina Beaufort, before building their current church in 1994 on S.C. 280.'
Jim Pringle, senior warden at St. Helena's Episcopal Church, said no plans have been made at the church for the land once Grace Chapel AME relocates.