Hundreds of Orangemen walked in sombre silence on Thursday as the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland said goodbye to one of its leading lights.
Drew Nelson, 60, passed away on Monday following a short battle with cancer.
The Dromore solicitor, who served for more than a decade as the Institution’s grand secretary, was one of the driving forces responsible for its rejuvenation in recent years,
Brethren from across Northern Ireland were invited to walk as a unified body behind the cortege as it made its way to St John’s Parish Church near Hillsborough in Co Down.
Around 800 in their Orange collarettes, led by Mr Nelson’s own Listullycurran LOL 616, formed up four abreast to make the half-mile journey to the picturesque country churchyard at Kilwarlin.
They were met at the church by more than 200 mourners – including representatives of the Ulster Defence Regiment CGC Association reflecting Mr Nelson’s service as a former part-time officer in the regiment.
The funeral service was led by Rev David Pierce.
Addressing the mourners, Rev Pierce praised Mr Nelson as a leader and “a man of great faith”.
Commenting on the prospect of death without fear, he said: “Drew echoed this hope in a text message to his friends from his hospital bed which read: ‘God has created me for a purpose and now he is calling me home.’
First Minister Arlene Foster paid her own tribute at the service, saying Mr Nelson was “much more than the public face of Orangeism”.
God has created me for a purpose and now he is calling me home
She said: “There have been many eloquent and heartfelt tributes paid to Drew since his passing on Monday morning.
“Leader, ambassador, visionary, champion, an innovator, articulate and a strategist.
“He was all of these things and much, much more.”
She added: “He carried all of these accolades so humbly and certainly did not search out glory. That was the mark of Drew.
“He just wanted to get the job done in a respectful and dignified way.”
Mrs Foster’s voiced cracked on several occasions as she recalled how the pair had first met while she was a law student at Queen’s University Belfast during the turbulent years of the Troubles.
Their last encounter came while he was in hospital just two weeks before his death.
“I counted it as a tremendous privilege to have known Drew and I am so glad that our paths crossed many years ago,” the DUP MLA added.
The funeral hymns were All People That on Earth Do Dwell, Amazing Grace and Guide me O thou great Jehovah. Bible readings were from Psalm 23 and John 14.
Scottish grand master Jim McHarg and the grand master of the Order in England Ron Bather attended along with many unionist MPs, MLAs and councillors. The SDLP’s Alex Attwood was also there to pay his respects.
Grand Master of Ireland Edward Stevenson led the tributes to Mr Nelson this week saying the Orange Institution has lost not only its “heartbeat,” but “perhaps its greatest ever advocate”.
He said: “Drew was a towering figure within the Orange fraternity, whose commitment and devotion to the principles of Orangeism are simply unrivalled. No other individual, over the course of the past decade, has done more to champion the cause of the Institution and its membership. His contribution to promoting a tradition he was immensely proud to represent, was truly outstanding.”
Mr Nelson was an Ulster Unionist councillor and a former chair of Banbridge District Council before leaving the party in 2004.
His business partner in the Nelson-Singleton solicitor’s practice Lewis Singleton – who is also a senior Orangeman – praised his friend and colleague’s perseverance and diplomacy in transforming how the Order was perceived by the wider community.
“It’s not just because of Drew, but he was the one who took it down a different road, because it had to be taken down a different road. It is now flourishing in a way it has never flourished before. He was very astute and knew that Northern Ireland had changed and will continue to change,” he said.
Among those from the nationalist community paying tribute to Mr Nelson this week was former GAA star Jarleth Burns, who tweeted: “Sad to hear of the passing of Drew Nelson RIP. A sincere and courteous man, totally committed to his faith and to the Orange Institution.”
Following the service, the Cavanapole lodge from Killylea District summed up what many were saying as they gathered to pay their respects at the funeral. They tweeted: “Rarely does any organisation or institution have a member with the drive, passion and love for it as the Orange Order had in Drew Nelson.”
Earlier this week, Orange grand chaplain Rev Mervyn Gibson singled out the opening of two new centres telling the story or Orangeism as one of Mr Nelson’s greatest legacies.
“Drew has many legacies within the Institution and one of them is the Museum of Orange Heritage. He had driven that from the start and it was his vision to see it open – and thankfully he did see it open,” he said.
Prince Charles visited one of the two museums – at Sloan’s House in Loughgall – in May this year where he was greeted by Mr Nelson and other Orange leaders.