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The funeral for slain Montreal Mafia don Nicolo Rizzuto Sr. drew hundreds of mourners just hours after a mysterious package was found on the doorstep of the church where the service was held.

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A suspicious box sits on the steps of the Notre-Dame-de-la-Défense Church in Montreal's Little Italy on Monday, hours before the funeral for Nicolo Rizzuto. ((CBC))

For a man who enjoyed a three-decade reign in the underworld, Rizzuto's was a simple ceremony that eschewed much of the ostentatious pomp of past mobster farewells.

A procession of black vehicles — three town cars, six limousines, and one hearse — filed their way past a crowd of curious onlookers to get to the church.

The convoy arrived at the main entrance of Notre-Dame-de-la-Défense Church in Montreal's Little Italy district shortly before 11 a.m. and the casket containing Rizzuto's body was carried inside.

What followed was a 90-minute ceremony led entirely by an Italian-speaking priest. None of Rizzuto's relatives spoke and there was no eulogy, said a person who attended.

When the service was over, hundreds of mourners filed out of the church. A few distant family friends agreed to speak with the media and shared memories of their encounters with the old-style don who grew up on Sicilian farms and always wore a fedora in public.

The 86-year-old Rizzuto family patriarch was killed last Wednesday by a single gunshot fired through his kitchen window.

Police believe an experienced marksman hiding in the woods behind the home fired the shot, striking Rizzuto in front of his wife and daughter.

Modest funeral marked by strange box

Rizzuto's funeral was not nearly as lavish as some of the ones held for men who shared his place in the underworld hierarchy.

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The casket of Nicolo Rizzuto is carried out of Notre-Dame-de-la-Défense on Monday. ((CBC))

Outside the same church, in 1978, 31 black Cadillacs reportedly lined up for the funeral of Paolo Violi, who was killed in the purge that saw the Rizzutos rise to prominence.

The 1931 spectacle for murdered New York Mob boss Salvatore Maranzano, featured a reported 100 Cadillac limousines, two-dozen separate cars carrying flower bouquets, a silver casket, and thousands lining the streets in a mile-long funeral procession.

The biggest surprise at Monday's funeral came, perhaps, in the form of a little black box.

The package — about the size of a shoebox, with a white cross taped onto the top — was left on the front steps of Notre-Dame-de-la-Defense Church early Monday morning.

The package, which was said to contain a note, was seized by investigators.

"The contents of the note will be kept confidential until our investigators have had a chance to look at it," said police Const. Daniel Lacoursière.

Lacoursière said it was unclear whether the box was part of an Italian tradition. But he said the Italian-born priest had never heard of any such practice.

Remembering Rizzuto

Rizzuto's gold-coloured coffin was pulled from the hearse and carried inside by pallbearers shortly after 11 a.m. It resembled the coffin used at the funeral for his grandson and namesake, who was gunned down last year.

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Visitors come and go under the watchful eyes of the media and police photographers during a visitation for Nicolo Rizzuto Sr. at a funeral home in Montreal on Sunday. ((Peter McCabe/Canadian Press))

The service ended with the soothing sound of bells. The immediate Rizzuto family — Nicolo's wife, daughter, daughter-in-law and grandchildren — were present.

But his son Vito, the reputed head of the Mafia in Montreal now serving out a sentence in a Colorado prison, was not present. His extradition and sentence in the U.S. touched off the violence that has seen the once dominant clan all but decimated over the last few years. He isn't due out of jail until 2012.

One family friend painted a picture of the deceased that contrasted sharply with his popular image as a hardened mobster.

"I remember him as a very nice and gentle person," said Francesco Bennici, 71, who knew Rizzuto for about 40 years. "I'm sorry for what has happened. It should not have happened."

Bennici, who came from the same Sicilian province as Rizzuto but said they met in Montreal, described the funeral as a sad affair and said of the mourners inside: "Everybody's sorry, everybody's sad."

Bennici brushed aside reporters' questions about Rizzuto's documented Mafia ties.

"What you hear, I don't know, and I don't hear the same thing," he said.

Alberto Pizzi said it was important to pay his respects to a man he'd met not long after he arrived in Canada some 57 years ago.

"For me, he's not a criminal," said Pizzi, an accountant who had business dealings with the family. "Everyone knew everyone and there was a respect between us."

Funeral an opportunity for police

A few hundred members of the public gathered on the sidewalk, standing two and three deep in some places.

Nicolo Rizzuto's slaying is the latest in a series of attacks against the family: his grandson and namesake Nick Jr. was shot dead last December; his son-in-law Paolo Renda was kidnapped in May and hasn't been heard from since; and another Mafia boss close to the family, Agostino Cuntrera, was assassinated in front of his food-distribution business in the summer.

None of those crimes have been solved.

The heightened police presence at Monday's funeral wasn't just to protect the Rizzutos. It was also an opportunity for police to gather intelligence.

Detectives kept an eye on comings and goings, with some officers filming both the mourners and their licence plates after a weekend of similar surveillance at a Rizzuto-owned funeral parlour.

Police officers snapped away, blending in with the photo-snapping public.

Such events remain a valuable form of information gathering for police, said retired Quebec provincial police officer John Galianos.

In some cases, police photos of top mobsters are badly of out date, going back more than 20 years, he said.

"People get older and they start to look different, so they'll be trying to identify these guys," he said.

News photographers set up perches on balconies across the street to get a better vantage point.

Some reporters attempted to enter the church to cover the funeral in person, but were either blocked at the entrance or whisked out by a swarm of burly security guards who circled the building.

With files from The Canadian Press