Rita MacNeil's life to be celebrated at funeral Monday

The funeral service for acclaimed Cape Breton singer-songwriter Rita MacNeil will be held on Monday in her Nova Scotia hometown of Big Pond.

Funeral to take place at St. Mary's Parish in MacNeil's hometown

Rita MacNeil's life will be celebrated at her funeral, which will take place Monday at St. Mary's Parish in Big Pond, N.S. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

The funeral service for acclaimed Cape Breton singer-songwriter Rita MacNeil will be held on Monday in her Nova Scotia hometown of Big Pond.

The service for the 68-year-old singer — who died Tuesday evening following complications from surgery after a recurring infection — will be held at 2 p.m. AT at St. Mary's Parish.

MacNeil's publicist said it hasn't been decided yet whether the funeral at the parish — just up the road from MacNeil's home  — will be open to the public and media.

Meanwhile, hundreds of people formed a steady stream into the Civic Centre in nearby Sydney on Thursday to sign a book of condolences for MacNeil.

"She's just like one of your family. There's no big feeling about her, no super stardom, even though to us she was the star," said Kathleen England, who was visiting Sydney from Guysborough.

"She had no hesitation about saying she was from Big Pond and it just made you feel like part of her family. It was just a joy to sit and listen to her and enjoy her music."

MacNeil, who was one of eight children, moved to Toronto at age 17, wrote her first song and began singing in folk clubs. She later moved to Ottawa, where she recorded three albums, but eventually returned to Big Pond, where she formed a trio.

Her powerful voice explored genres from country to folk to gospel.

MacNeil worked tirelessly over decades to gradually become a beloved fixture in Canadian culture, with her greatest success coming after she was in her 40s.

Clint MacKenzie, a former security guard, recalled an incident after one of MacNeil's concerts at Centre 200 in Sydney, where he was working as a guard.

"After the concert I went up to her and I said, 'Ms. MacNeil, do you mind if I get an autograph for some relatives in the audience?' And she said, 'Who are they?' I said, 'Well, it's my mom, my grandmother and my great-grandmother,'" MacKenzie told CBC News.

MacNeil insisted on meeting all four generations of the MacKenzie family.

Brenda MacKenzie, Clint MacKenzie's mother, said she still remembers the look on her grandmother's face.

"She was an absolute fan of Rita's. Loved her. Every time she was in Sydney, we would go," said MacKenzie.

"My grandmother, Sue, she'd been gun booting to meet her. To say, 'Hi Rita,' just like she was a long-lost friend. Just the fact that she talked like us. She's the star and we're normal people, and she talked to us like we were very good friends."

MacNeil, who was famously shy, recorded 24 albums and sold millions of records over the course of her career.

She hosted a CBC-TV variety program, Rita and Friends, which ran from 1994 to 1997 and drew regular audiences of one million viewers. MacNeil's Christmas variety shows drew loyal viewers.

MacNeil, who was also a member of the Order of Canada and the recipient of five honorary doctorates, has been praised by many for her wisdom and humility.

"That's the type of person Rita is. She comes into your life for a very small moment in time and she's there forever," said Clint MacKenzie.

"She's our Cape Breton angel."

With files from The Canadian Press