Carolina Forest’s ‘religious road’ features four churches, plans for five more

Easter Sunday draws many families away from their candy-filled baskets and pastel-colored eggs and into the open doors of area churches.

And happily for some, church-goers will have several more options over the next few years as Carolina Forest Boulevard blossoms with new places of worship.

There are four established churches on the 8.3-mile stretch of road between U.S. 501 and River Oaks Drive, and at least five more with intentions to build there.

“In the original development agreement (from International Paper), there were lots set aside for eight churches,” said David Schwerd, principal planner for Horry County. “Since then the Bishop of Charleston purchased property for the proposed Catholic high school, and the Coptic Orthodox church purchased about 14 acres.”

International Pentecostal Holiness Church also purchased a lot on the boulevard, Schwerd said, but doesn’t have a sign indicating future building efforts.

St. Mark Coptic Orthodox church is the first worship center to break ground in several years – much to the relief of Father Antony Zaki.

“We bought the land four years ago, at the beginning of 2011,” Zaki said. “It was really a miracle that this small community, by the grace of God, collected the $2 million needed to build.”

The Coptic church – Coptic meaning Egyptian – chose Carolina Forest for two main reasons: location and the church-friendly atmosphere.

“It’s a great location, especially since the whole zone is just churches,” Zaki said. “And it’s suitable for all of our congregation – most of our members are living in or around Carolina Forest.”

Zaki expects the outside of the building ready by next Christmas, but the inside will take several more months. In the meantime, Father Zaki and his congregation are looking ahead.

“We’re thinking about a day care, a retirement home, a retreat home,” Zaki said. “Once we finish our church and move to the new location, we’re going to start to put the other projects in action.”

Carolina Forest Community Church, located almost smack-dab in the middle of the stretch and across from St. Mark Coptic, was established in 1997 by a small group from Pawleys Island. At first the church met at Carolina Forest Elementary School, but in mid-2000 purchased 25 acres, said Charles Fox, family pastor.

The church founders “just saw the need to start a church in the Carolina Forest area, and saw what it was going to be in the future,” Fox said.

The multi-purpose building was funded through church members and regular tithes, and now boasts soccer and football fields for area youth.

“At the time, the county didn’t have a plan for youth sports,” Fox said. “So we developed a youth sports ministry,” which is open to the entire community.

Fourteen years later, the boulevard is still a popular place for ministries of all denominations. Fox said it’s because of the extensive population growth in Carolina Forest over the years.

“From the original plan that I saw, there was going to be so many neighborhoods with so many people,” Fox said. “And people would want a place to connect with other people.

“It’s just a good location.”

The church built a student center behind the original building in 2007, and is in the early stages of more expansions. Fox wasn’t sure what exactly the church is planning, but Carolina Forest Community is seeking to expand its ministry in the most beneficial way possible.

The initial plan for Carolina Forest boasted 20,000 single and multi-family homes, and the boulevard was completed in December 1997. Redistricting the area in 2000 caused the community to go from 3,400 people to more than 21,000 over a 10-year period, according to the 2010 census.

Pastor Benjamin Zahn of Amazing Grace Lutheran Church, which dedicated its building in March 2011, said the church bought the land years before building funds became available.

“We owned the piece of property, like a lot of these churches, for nearly a decade and were able to build on it,” Zahn said.

Partial blame for the lack of funds rests on the Great Recession. Though many churches saw Carolina Forest as a booming town, start-up fundraising came to a halt when the economy floundered.

“I think you’re going try to start a church where the people are at and where the people are moving into,” Zahn said. “But when the recession hit, the building slowed for a while.”

Amazing Grace Lutheran, which has about 105 members, is working toward a preschool program and an outdoor play area, though Zahn said those plans are in the early discussion stage.

“We’re doing the research, and it really boils down to some start-up funding,” Zahn said. “And there is a need for (a preschool).”

The needs of the community are currently on the minds of Pastor Jeff Dunn and the rest of Christ United Methodist Church. The church, which was one of the first to purchase land in the area, currently meets across from Medieval Times on Fantasy Way in Myrtle Beach.

Though originally planning to build a worship center on the Carolina Forest land, Dunn said the church “just felt we needed to pause for a moment because we were growing so fast.” That pause led to a much larger service building, which averages about 1,100 people every Sunday.

“We still believe we will be back in Carolina Forest, and we’re looking at possible usage (of the land) that can benefit the community,” Dunn said.

That usage could be a park, community garden or recreation area, but Dunn said they have to determine what county zoning laws will allow. Still, Dunn recognizes Carolina Forest’s growth and welcoming spirit to the religious community.

“Back when we made the purchase, the community was just starting, but the idea of Carolina Forest was reaching the area between Conway and Myrtle Beach,” Dunn said.

“There were a lot of people who we could, and still can, reach out to in that area, and who could benefit from a relationship with God.”