PITTSBURG -- During the 15 years the Rev. Helmut Richter has served as pastor at Good Shepherd Catholic Church, parishioners have seen different sides of the popular priest. Compassionate, gruff, serious and businesslike are all words used to describe him.

Now, Richter is retiring because of health reasons. But that doesn't mean he will be giving up his volunteer police chaplain duties or role officiating at weddings and funerals and the occasional Mass at area churches as an on-call priest.

"I will always be a priest. I won't be the pastor," the 69-year-old Richter said. "I will continue to be a supply priest in any parish in the area of the diocese in need of some help. And I will continue doing volunteer work at the sheriff's department, police department and occasionally with the fire department."

To celebrate his years of service, the parish will hold a retirement dinner Dec. 15 for Richter, who will lead a Mass before the dinner and dancing that will follow. On Christmas Eve, Richter will also lead a midnight Mass.

The Diocese of Oakland is expected to name a new priest for Good Shepherd in the coming weeks. In the meantime, the Rev. Ricardo Chavez, a retired pastor from St. Peter Martyr Catholic Church in Pittsburg, is the church's interim administrator through Dec. 31.

Good Shepherd has had only two pastors since it was founded in 1965. The Rev. Louis Dabovich, who served the parish from its first year until his retirement in 1997, and Richter, who arrived that year.

Richter, who moved to the United States when he was 19, came to the priesthood in an unconventional way. He is the divorced father of two adult children. Over the years, he has picked artichokes, worked as a bookkeeper at a Salinas car dealership and had a successful career as a personnel manager at Wells Fargo Bank. He converted to Catholicism when he was 30, spent 15 years doing church volunteer work, then decided at age 46 he wanted to be a priest.

Soon after announcing his retirement to the parish in late October, Richter left on a five-week vacation in Germany's Bavaria region to visit the Catholic farming family that raised him after his mother, who found herself alone in a refugee camp after World War II ended, realized she could not care for Richter and his two siblings.

"I usually travel there every year. As a priest, there is always stuff for me to do, family weddings and that kind of stuff," said Richter, who will move into an apartment in the Pittsburg area after returning from his trip on Monday. His retirement plans also call for doing more traveling, he said.

Richter will continue to serve as a chaplain for the Pittsburg Police Department to provide counseling and spiritual support to officers.

"He's been available to us 24 hours for a multitude of things," Lt. Ron Raman said. "He's definitely a big part of the police department. He's gone on ride-alongs with the police, sometimes on graveyard shift. He rode on the passenger seat and observed what the officers were doing."

A penchant for ride-alongs is just one aspect of the man.

"I find him gruff but also a big marshmallow," said Darla Kilgannon, who has been a parishioner since converting to Catholicism under Richter's guidance four years ago.

He's got a serious side, too, which makes him well-suited to being a priest, Kilgannon said. "But also if you are in the right setting with him, he is very approachable," Kilgannon.

Where does the marshmallow side come in?

"I see how he handles children. He loves children. And he is so kind in teaching them. That puts a little marshmallow in him," she said. "Our youth ministry has really expanded because of him."

Parishioner Bob Beck said Richter has brought both compassion and real-world business experience in serving the needs of the church.

"He is a very compassionate individual. I've seen him working with grieving families and helping them. His funeral Masses are just really wonderful. He gets to the heart of the person," said Beck, principal of Pittsburg Unified School District's adult education center. "He is the compassionate priest but also a good businessman. Father Helmut worked in banking. He brought that sense to the parish in making sure we had sound business practices."

Contact Eve Mitchell at 925-779-7189. Follow her on Twitter.com/EastCounty_Girl.

if you GO
What: Mass and retirement dinner for Father Helmut Richter
Where: Good Shepherd Catholic Church, 3200 Harbor St. Pittsburg
When: 5:30 p.m. Mass in the church, followed by dinner, $45 per person, in the parish hall on Dec. 15
Info: Reservations at 925-432-6404