Rita MacNeil remembered as woman who loved to laugh

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A flower is laid beside a portrait of Rita MacNeil and her teapot urn as the funeral for the Cape Breton legend came to end in Big Pond on Monday

BIG POND — Rita MacNeil’s own words were a source of comfort, and a few laughs, as hundreds gathered to remember the renowned singer-songwriter in her beloved hometown.

On a picturesque, sunny spring day in Big Pond, people began arriving at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church late Monday morning for Rita’s funeral at 2 p.m. The church filled quickly, accommodating close to 300 people by the time the service began. Hundreds more watched a live video feed of the service in the neighbouring Big Pond fire hall, and thousands watched a live stream online on CBC.

Her daughter Laura Lewis delivered opening remarks, noting that her mom loved to laugh and had a wonderful sense of humour, before reading a letter Rita wrote to her and her brother, Wade. It contained instructions for her two children, in the event of her death.

“Upon my death, I would want to be cremated immediately, my ashes to be placed in my tearoom teapot, two if necessary,” Laura read to laughter. “A small service at St. Mary’s Church, Big Pond, a few words, and a simple prayer. I want my song, ‘Weary Travelers’ to be played, a party at the fire hall to follow with a cash bar, and my nieces and nephews to play.”

Those instructions were followed to the letter, as Rita’s family, friends, neighbours and fans came together to reflect on and celebrate the life of a woman lovingly known as Cape Breton’s first lady of song.

“My brother Wade and I are overwhelmed with the kind words. We are overwhelmed with the stories and the tributes, and we are overwhelmed with your sympathies and condolences. For this we thank you,” said Laura. “What a legacy our mother has left for us. She was a very special mom, we loved her deeply and we will miss her deeply.”

Fr. Joe Gillis presided over the 35-minute service and delivered the homily.

“The people of Cape Breton, the people of Big Pond are deeply saddened today because of their great loss in the death of Rita MacNeil,” he said. “She was their hero, as she travelled throughout Nova Scotia, and all of Canada and beyond, touching the hearts of all who came to listen to her love songs and to her stories about the wonderful folks back home, and how she always looked forward to returning to the island she loved so much.”

With a picture of Rita, a teapot with her ashes, and one of her signature red hats at the front of the church, Gillis went on to describe Rita as a “true servant of the people.”

“She was blessed with a very special gift, the gift of song that she was born with. The Lord said ‘Do not keep your light to yourself, put it on the lampstand for everyone to see,’” he said. “Oftentimes it was with a great deal of sacrifice to herself that Rita performed onstage for her fans, especially in recent times when she was in poor health. But love makes everything possible and so in spite of all the discomfort she let her light shine.

“God bless you Rita, may you rest in peace. Amen,” concluded Gillis.

The service included two hymns — “Sing We Praises to the Father” and “Prayer of St. Francis” and, as requested, Rita’s own song, “Weary Travelers,” from her last album “Saving Grace.”

Hearing Rita’s voice fill the church was an emotional moment for many in the congregation, which included Rita’s family, friends, and many from the local musical community, including Kim Dunn, who was guest vocalist on the recording of “Weary Travelers,” Allie Bennett, members of the Barra MacNeils, Max MacDonald, Ralph Dillon, Scott Macmillan, Mary Jane Lamond, Wendy MacIsaac and many more.

Alexa McDonough, former federal NDP leader, Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter and numerous provincial MLAs and municipal politicians were also in attendance.

Outside the church, following the funeral, Bennett, who played in Rita’s band for a decade, said the simple service was fitting.

“It’s what she would have wanted,” he said. “Her family and close friends, former and present band members and crew, and just all the people that loved her and that she loved. It was just very appropriate.”

Bennett said he will carry with him many fond memories of their time together on the road.

“She worked hard all her life to get to where she was, especially in the early days and it was just a privilege to be a part of the early part of her career, to watch it all happen,” he said.

Max MacDonald, who has known Rita for 35-plus years, said she will live on in peoples’ memories and through her music.

“We’ll always have Rita, that much I know. Hearing that song in the church today was so beautiful. We’ll always have Rita, she’ll always be with us. I think that’s wonderful and what a gift that is,” he said.

MacDonald said he’ll miss Rita’s sense of humour and her heartfelt laughter.

“One of the things that I loved to do was make her laugh, because I just loved to hear her laugh,” he said.

Well-known local musician Flo Sampson, a longtime neighbour and friend of Rita, said she’ll treasure the time she spent working with Rita in Rita’s Tea Room.

“My heart warmed every time I walked through the door because she overwhelmed me with her humbleness, her kindness, and of course her music was another thing, and so it’s going to take a long time to get over,” said Sampson, who will remember her friend by listening to her music and by telling people how proud she was just to know her. “We’ll continue to love her, even though she’s not here.”

Among those who attended Monday’s service was the Pronk family of Big Pond — John, deputy fire chief of the Big Pond fire department, his wife Lynn, an employee of Rita’s Tea Room, and their daughter, Nicole, who served as master of ceremonies at many of Rita’s concerts in Big Pond.

“I had to be here today, there’s no other place I would be,” John said as he helped direct traffic arriving for the funeral. “It was so easy to be Rita’s friend, because that was just the person she was.”

Lynn, who is set to begin her 13th season of employment at Rita’s Tea Room, said Rita was extremely generous.

“She was wonderful and she always put everybody first, whether it was the staff, the people, it was never herself,” said Lynn.

Nicole, 22, grew up admiring Rita.

“I’ve known her my whole life, being from Big Pond, and she was always just an inspiration, especially as a young woman. To me, she was the definition of small towns and big dreams,” she said.

MacNeil died April 16 of complications following surgery. She was 68.

The woman behind iconic songs like “Flying on Your Own,” “Home I'll Be,” “Reason to Believe,” and “Working Man,” Rita established herself as one of Canada’s premiere recording and touring artists in a career spanning more than 40 years. She released 24 albums, selling millions of copies throughout her career. She won three Juno Awards, as well as numerous East Coast Music Awards, and many other honours, including the Order of Canada.

ljgrant@cbpost.com

Organizations: Roman Catholic Church, CBC, NDP

Geographic location: BIG POND, Canada, Cape Breton Nova Scotia

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