NORTH AUGUSTA — A Sunday gathering at Old Storm Branch Baptist Church marked the end of a major chapter for the congregation and the Rev. Nathaniel Irvin Sr., who is now officially retired “after 54 glorious years of service,” as his decades were described in a handout for the event.

The 84-year-old pastor and his wife, Eugenia, sat front and center at the four-hour gathering, which included a mixture of thankful laughter, tears and tributes based on the concept of faithful service. The featured speaker, the Rev. Benjamin Snoddy, emphasized servanthood and hailed Irvin as an outstanding example of that trait.

“He is the only mentor I have. I hold this man high,” said Snoddy, also known as senior pastor of Spartanburg’s Mount Moriah Baptist Church.

Snoddy added that “you really can’t be a believer in Jesus Christ without being a servant.”

Patricia Abney McDaniel, coordinator of the retirement celebration, noted that rumors about Irvin’s possible retirement began to circulate in 2007, when Old Storm Branch paid off its mortgage. “Reverend Irvin said, from the pulpit one Sunday morning, ‘Y’all stop talking about my retirement. I will not retire until God tells me to retire.’”

“On December 8, 2012, a few months ago, Reverend Irvin presented a letter to the church, announcing his retirement to be effective March 31, 2013. Some have reluctantly accepted this, and others are still having problems wrapping their heads around it, but God has spoken, so the church may as well say, ‘Amen,’” McDaniel said, getting an “amen” from the gathering in reply.

The minister, producing a pocket watch and showing it to his listeners, confirmed that his remarks would be brief. He gave thanks for the event’s organizers and his neighbors in ministry and declared, “To God be the glory.”

He added, “I want to thank God for all of you ... What can I do for you? I pray for you, that God will bless you in every respect ... I’ve said to the deacon board, ‘You’ve made my job here very easy.’”

Among the hundreds in attendance was Charlotte resident Frank Gardiner, who grew up in the CSRA with the Irvins as neighbors. Referring to the pastor, Gardiner said, “He’s a great preacher. He’s a great humanitarian. First of all, he has a genuine, unmistakable love for Christ, and that immediately translates over to his dealings with his fellow man. He does have love for every man, and that’s been prevalent and foremost throughout my life, and, through observation, that comes out immediately with everyone he’s met in his life.”

Jerome Miller, also a Charlotte resident with longtime family connections to the Irvins, made similar comments. “He’s just been a pastor among pastors – a pastor at his church, in the community and far beyond what his congregation will ever know. He’s truly a servant of God, and we thank him for all that he’s done for this church, this community and way beyond,” Miller said.

Irvin, who walks without a cane, grinned and offered a couple of fancy footsteps, to the assembly’s delight, after he concluded his remarks and was stepping down from the pulpit area. The longtime minister is now a pastor emeritus, as noted in a declaration that was presented at Sunday’s event. He is also known for his years of service as an educator, having been a teacher and school administrator before, during and after the process of school integration in Aiken County.

Bill Bengtson, a native of Florence, Ala., has been a full-time reporter since 1994, when he started with the Index-Journal, in Greenwood.