The Don of Montreal is gone.
In a pageant of power that drew hundreds of mourners, nine stretch limos and a not-so-discreet corps of police officers, legendary Mob boss Vito Rizzuto was laid to rest in a funeral service signalling the end of a dynasty in Canada’s criminal underworld.
Such was Mr. Rizzuto’s influence that the Corriere della Sera in Italy headlined the 67-year-old’s passing last week: “Death in Canada: Vito Rizzuto, the last ‘don’ of the Mafia.”
That status showed itself just before 12:30 p.m. when a funeral cortege pulled up in front of the Church of the Madonna della Difesa, the hearses piled so high with blood-red roses and other flowers that they left a sweet aroma wafting into the frigid winter air on Dante Street in Little Italy.
As the massive doors to the church opened, eight fedora-wearing pallbearers carried Mr. Rizzuto’s gold-coloured casket inside. Mr. Rizzuto was in prison and missed the funerals of his father and son at the same church in 2010 – both the victims of separate murders.
Mr. Rizzuto made it into the church, not on his feet but for a final farewell.
The onetime immigrant to Canada, who built a criminal empire stretching across several continents, avoided his relatives’ violent end and died of natural causes linked to lung cancer last Monday.
“He was like the Pope – like Montreal’s own Don Corleone,” said a man who would give his name only as Marcel, one of numerous onlookers who waited in the freezing air to catch a glimpse of Mr. Rizzuto’s casket.
Access to Mr. Rizzuto’s one-hour service was strictly controlled. An attempt by this reporter to enter the ornate church was stopped by a half-dozen men in dark wool coats who stood at the doorway.
“This is for family only,” said a man in tinted glasses, as organ music and incense filtered out through the door.
The Catholic mass featured no eulogy but was marked by prayer and contemplation, according to Monsignor Igino Incantalupo, who presided over the service.
“It was of the greatest simplicity,” the priest said after the service, speaking near the lavishly decorated ceiling fresco showing Italian dictator Benito Mussolini on horseback.
“People showed a very surprising level of calm and seriousness.”
Outside the church, police were omnipresent, and not just the uniformed officers in patrol cars. Inside a plain van with tinted windows parked directly across the street from the church, a woman could be seen with a long lens pointed straight at the front doors.
François Doré, a former Sûreté du Québec lieutenant, said events such as marriages and funerals are valued opportunities for police to gather intelligence and “update their photo albums” on criminal families. In the case of Mr. Rizzuto’s funeral, the information could offer clues about potential successors left by the power vacuum in the wake of Mr. Rizzuto’s death.
“Police want to know who came to pay respects, who is supporting the family – and who could potentially take over,” said Mr. Doré. Police might even notice those who are absent – “and ask why,” Mr. Doré said in an interview.
To outsiders, the funeral offered a glimpse into the man behind the smooth and ruthless former Mob boss. One of the floral arrangements spelled out the word Nonno – grandfather in Italian. Another illustrated Mr. Rizzuto’s passion for golf with an elaborate display of golf clubs and balls, all set amid a towering flower arrangement on the back of a funeral hearse. Experts watch flowers and other displays as measures of respect toward crime figures.
Mr. Rizzuto’s death raises the risk of turmoil as new criminal leaders seek to assert themselves. But there are few obvious successors to Mr. Rizzuto, a multilingual, charismatic figure with a reputation as a smooth-talking arbitrator who commanded respect.
The Rizzuto clan held sway for three decades and forged an empire that stretched across international borders. Since Mr. Rizzuto returned to Canada last year after serving time in the United States, he was well on his way to re-establishing his grip on power, observers say.
As the casket left the church under the pealing of bells, following behind was Mr. Rizzuto’s widow, his surviving son and daughter, as well as his mother, Libertina Manno. In the past four years, Ms. Manno has buried her husband, Nicolo, her grandson, Nick Jr., and now she was burying her first child, Vito. She was led away in a black coat into a waiting limousine – silent, but the stricken look on her face speaking volumes.