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Kennedy Had Close Ties To Funeral Church

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Senator Edward Kennedy could have picked any cathedral he wanted for his funeral tomorrow. Instead of a prominent church, the senator made it known that he wanted his service held in the Mission Hill section of Boston at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

NPR's Robert Smith tells us why.

ROBERT SMITH: The Basilica is beautiful. But it's not exactly glamorous.

Father PHILIP DABNEY (Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help): No air conditioning. We have the basic furniture. We don't even have enough fans in this church to keep people cool.

SMITH: And I hear your sound system's a little dodgy.

Father DABNEY: Yeah, right, a little dodgy, too. But I really believe that he chose this himself.

SMITH: Father Philip Dabney is remarkably chilled out for a man about to host four presidents, multiple foreign leaders and much of the U.S. Senate. He says there's something about the Basilica that inspires calm and solace. That's what brought Kennedy here in the first place, to a side of the church with an icon of the Virgin Mary.

Father DABNEY: This is the shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help and this is the reason that we have had such huge crowds of people.

SMITH: It's believed by the faithful that this shrine has healing powers. The senator started coming here six years ago when his daughter Kara was being treated for cancer at a nearby hospital.

Father DABNEY: When he was in real need for his own family, he came here to pray for his daughter and then for himself. And he came very inconspicuously without an entourage, but he knelt at that shrine, you know, with great hope that both for his daughter whose cancer is in remission and for himself.

SMITH: The shrine is flanked by dozens of crutches left here, Dabney says, by people who were either healed, or at the very least, got better on their own. Tucked into the crutches are papers with prayers for help and Kennedy must have loved this - a Boston Red Socks cap.

Father DABNEY: Because it's a desperate need.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: The church has been up here on Mission Hill since the 1870s and has always been devoted to immigrants and the poor. That's why they call it the Mission Church, attended first to the German community, then the Irish, now the congregation includes Latinos and a large Caribbean population. In the old times, they'd have up to eight services a day, 15,000 people. Now they only get about 900 on a Sunday. Only a couple a dozen were here this morning for Mass.

(Soundbite of Mass)

Unidentified People: (Singing) Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.

SMITH: Most of the congregates are still amazed that their church will be the site of the Kennedy funeral, that President Obama will give the eulogy here. After all, the neighborhood is still home to a lot of low income housing and it's getting over a reputation for crime. But Francia Cordia(ph), who moved here from Haiti, says Kennedy's choice tells you something about the man.

Ms. FRANCIA CORDIA: Where else could the ceremony be held but here? You know, he was a man of multi-color, multi-cultural. He fought for everybody. He saw everybody as equal. Here, that's the perfect place.

SMITH: Well, not quite perfect yet. Boston's Public Works Department has descended upon this neighborhood over the last two days, fixing the sidewalks in front, painting over the graffiti and trimming overgrown hedges. But Father Dabney says the Mission Church, with all its flaws, can be a symbol of how Kennedy lived his life.

Father DABNEY: Having his final farewell with such simplicity and very little grandeur. Whatever grandeur comes in is because we put it there, not because he requested it.

Robert Smith, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Robert Smith is a host for NPR's Planet Money where he tells stories about how the global economy is affecting our lives.

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