Eunice Kennedy Shriver was celebrated by family members as a passionate humanitarian and a pious woman devoid of vanity, hours after thousands of mourners flocked to a church to pay their respects to the founder of the Special Olympics.
“She was pious, I think a very, very pious woman,” Shriver’s nephew Robert F. Kennedy Jr said during a mass service that capped a six-hour public wake for Mrs Shriver.
He said his godmother would immediately change her clothing after swimming - not caring who might be looking at her.
“People would go, ’Eunice!’ And she would say ’if you don’t like it, don’t look,”’ Mr Kennedy said to laughter in the church.
Among the steady stream of mourners who flowed into church was Mike Rhodes, a 25-year-old mentally disabled man who left a handmade card for Shriver.
On it was written a simple message: “She taught us to stand tall.”
Hundreds turned out for the wake at Our Lady of Victory Roman Catholic Church, where Mrs Shriver regularly attended services and where President John F. Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline Kennedy, was married to Edward Schlossberg in 1986.
Mrs Shriver’s coffin was surrounded by Kennedy family photos – many featuring family members with world leaders – and pictures of Mrs Shriver from the Special Olympics.
Mrs Shriver, the sister of the late President Kennedy and Senator Edward Kennedy, had suffered a series of strokes in recent years and died at Cape Cod Hospital on Tuesday in the company of her husband, her five children and her 19 grandchildren.
She was also the sister of Senator Robert F. Kennedy; the wife of 1972 vice presidential candidate R. Sargent Shriver; the mother of former NBC newswoman Maria Shriver; and the mother-in-law of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Loretta Claiborne, 55, a Special Olympian, described Shriver as a friend, and said she left a legacy of helping all kinds of people.
“When I was standing at her casket, I put my head down and said, ’God, let me be part of this legacy to keep her legacy going,”’ Ms Claiborne said.
Family members attended a private wake before the doors opened to the public.
Ted Kennedy, who is battling brain cancer did not attend. Spokesman Keith Maley said the senator’s schedule was day-to-day and it was unclear if he would attend today’s invitation-only funeral Mass at St Francis Xavier church in Hyannis.