Michael Burgess funeral draws arts stars, sports figures

Family and hundreds of friends from the worlds of sport, the arts and media gathered on Monday to remember Les Misérables star Michael Burgess at a music-filled funeral service.

Paul Coffey, Darryl Sittler, Louise Pitre, Tom Cochran among mourners

Musician Tom Cochrane (centre left) was among family and friends gathered to remember famed tenor Michael Burgess at a funeral service held at Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Toronto on Monday. (Marta Iwanek/Canadian Press)

The angelic voices of a boys' choir filled a Toronto church Monday during an elegant music-filled funeral for theatre star Michael Burgess, which drew hundreds of friends from the worlds of sport, the arts and media.

Former NHLers Paul Coffey, Darryl Sittler and Sean Burke, Mamma Mia! theatre star Louise Pitre, theatre impresario David Mirvish and rocker Tom Cochrane were among those to fill a downtown Roman Catholic Church where applause erupted following performances of Danny Boy and Amazing Grace by singers Adrian Luces and Jackie Richardson.

Friend Bruce Bowser told the capacity crowd of Burgess's love of hockey and golf, his devotion to fans, and tireless efforts to support countless charities with performances and appearances.

"He changed things, he made things better," said Bowser, working in references to Burgess's signature take on the Les Miserables classic Bring Him Home.

"God has brought Michael home to a place in the sun, a place of peace and rest."

Burgess died last week after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 70.

The celebrated tenor rose to fame as Jean Valjean in a long-running Canadian production of Les Miserables. His classic rendition of Bring Him Home became a favourite request in later years at his various concert and charitable appearances.

Actor Michael Burgess, seen singing the Canadian National Anthem prior to the Legends Classic Game in 2007, was honoured at a funeral in Toronto. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

But the tenor was arguably better known for his stirring rendition of O Canada at Toronto Maple Leafs home games, which several NHLers recalled Monday with fondness.

"I'll always remember the moments when he's singing the national anthem — he brings the building to another level," said Sittler, also recalling with gratitude that Burgess sang at his wife's funeral.

Sittler said he and several other retired players got to know Burgess through post-career hockey tours in which Burgess would also hit the ice and sing during intermission.

"He'd sing Danny Boy and instead of us sitting in the dressing room waiting for the next period we were on the bench listening to him inspire everybody," said Sittler.

Burgess's passing last week drew tributes from a wide array of friends and fans, including Toronto Blue Jays president Paul Beeston and Mirvish, who spoke of Burgess's dazzling voice and generous spirit.

A program for the funeral listed hockey legend Bobby Orr, TSN personality Rod Black and Burgess's son Jesse as pallbearers. The program also included a message from Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.

Black said it has been "a really tough week" for lot of people close to Burgess.

"He gave, he gave, he gave, he gave. Even until his last days he was still reaching out to people and phoning them and sending Happy Birthday wishes," said Black, who knew Burgess for 25 years and recalled singing with his pal.

"He sang at my wedding, he sang at so many people's weddings and funerals and the irony is today that we're at a funeral for him and I think everybody should probably sing. He was a great friend."

Burke said Orr was unable to attend the service and he stepped in to help carry the casket. Uniformed police formed an honour guard on either side and a piper played as the procession left the church with weeping mourners in tow.

"That's really [it] for me, the first time today when you grab hold of that casket, the reality sort of sinks in and you realize Michael's not coming back," said Burke, who added that Burgess was a family friend that he got to know further at charity hockey and golf events.

"But I'm very honoured to be able to do that and he's somebody I'll never forget."

Cochrane hinted at the suffering in Burgess's later years, saying he was glad the entertainer was finally at peace.

"He went through a big struggle and was one of the bravest people I've ever known," said Cochrane.

"He had the light of a child about him, he just really was a positive person, even through the tough struggle that he went through. But his music is going to be remembered and that's what everybody is talking about and focusing on, which is the way it should be."

Music at the service included a performance by students of St. Michael's Choir School, where Burgess began singing at age eight.

In lieu of flowers, the Burgess family requested donations to Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children in his name.

Burgess is survived by his son Jesse, mother Dolly Burgess and siblings Wayne, Missy, Cathy, Bill, Patty, Julie and their families.

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