It was said that Pastor Tony Gibson worked as the "heart of Darien in the heart of Darien," serving as the pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church for 36 years.

Up the new steps and through the stained-glass doors of the Calvary Baptist Church on Saturday, July 27, the pews were filled with people who had been touched by Gibson, who died at the age of 70 on April 17.

His sons, Jon and Stephen, had put together a memorial service for their father, who had made the church his home for 36 years.

The church was filled just after noon, when the service started, and even as the afternoon drew on, more and more people snuck in through the doors to pay homage. Metal folding chairs were set up behind the last pew for the late-comers.

Midway through the memorial, after two hymns -- "How Great Thou Art" and "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" -- and the reading of Psalm 55:1-8, 16-19, 22 and 2 Timothy 2:1-8, visitors, many of whom traveled from out of state, approached the altar to share their memories of Gibson.

Several themes were persistent: Gibson had served as a role model and as a spiritual leader, and had improved people's lives through the life he lived and the teachings he delivered.

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Jerry Russo, who knew Gibson for 30 years, said he was "the most unselfish person I've ever met in my entire life."

"My heart overflows with blessings and memories of Tony," Russo added.

Many of those who spoke knew Gibson for more than 10 years. One said she found Gibson and his spiritual guidance after she had attempted suicide. Another said Gibson's teachings directed her toward the life she lives now. Several had their weddings officiated by him.

Each of the personal reflections was filled with emotion, which was evident in their faces, though not all shed tears.

Gibson grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. He and his family moved to Darien in 1974.

He attended the Columbia Bible College in South Carolina, and received his Doctor of Ministry in counseling from the Westminster Theological Seminary in 1993.

"He jumped into the community head first," Jon Gibson said, "becoming a substitute teacher in one of the elementary schools, serving on various boards and councils, singing at local events and parades, blessing fleets at local yacht clubs, in hopes of crossing the denominational line in the kingdom of God."

Gibson was a pastor at churches in Queens and Brooklyn before coming to Darien. He and his wife, Irene, who died almost two years before him, both served the church. His last sermon was on Nov. 7, 2010.

"He always stood firmly with his convictions, regardless of the opposition that he face," Jon said, telling the congregation that his father was never one to shy away from controversy and would frequently write letters to the editor of the local newspaper.

Jon said his father was one for conversation, never one to want to debate someone and never wanted to put anyone down, "although he may have come across very strongly to them."

Jon said his father was not one for change and Jon wasn't sure if he had ever met someone so adverse to change.

"He liked routine, he liked a schedule," Jon said, citing his father's past a possibility for this trait. "Asking him to break from that was as sure-fired way to introduce chaos into his ordered little world." He added that he and his brother experienced that firsthand on their multiple road trips, "God forbid something stood in the way of us making good time," which garnered laughs from people in the audience.

However, that aversion to change, Jon said, made his last few years difficult which lead to his leaving of the church in what Jon said felt like a "forced retirement."

Eventually, he and his wife moved to Williamsburg, Va. They would be able to celebrate all the events -- birthday parties, graduations, sports games -- they had wanted to do with their family and grandchildren, Jon said. However, it all changed when Irene was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in early 2011, just two months after they had moved. Irene died on July 19, 2011.

"He never fully recovered from that heartbreak," the memorial program read. "His family is grateful to know that he is now free of pain and reunited with his wife and his mother and face to face with his Savior."

The memorial concluded with the dedication of the new church entrance way for Gibson.;203-330-6583; @Meg_DarienNews