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Loved ones gather to pay tribute to acclaimed Celtic singer Raylene Rankin

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HALIFAX - Raylene Rankin was remembered Thursday in the same way the beloved Cape Breton singer lived: surrounded by family and music.

Friends, family and fans packed a Halifax church in a song-and-fiddle-filled funeral service that reminded those gathered of the sweet harmonies she sang.

The 52-year-old mother of one died Sunday after a lengthy battle with cancer. She was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001, only to see the disease return in 2009 and again last year.

But those who knew Rankin said her focus went beyond her illness over the past decade.

"She was passionate about music, she was passionate about her family," Rev. Norman MacPhee told those gathered at Saint Thomas Aquinas Roman Catholic church on a bright fall day. "She cared for them deeply."

Rankin formed the internationally acclaimed musical group, then known as The Rankins, more than 20 years ago with four of her 12 siblings — John Morris, Jimmy, Cookie and Heather.

They released their first, independent album in 1989 and helped transition toe-tapping folk tunes from Cape Breton kitchens to the mainstream music scene.

Together, the siblings brought an award-winning mix of traditional Celtic music and contemporary originals to stages around the world, snapping up Juno Awards and other accolades along the way.

The group disbanded in 1999 and less than a year later, John Morris was killed in a car accident in Cape Breton. The remaining members reunited in 2007, setting out on a cross-Canada tour.

On Thursday, four of Rankin's brothers served as her pallbearers.

During the service, MacPhee said he first met Rankin some 39 years ago in her hometown of Mabou on the west coast of Cape Breton island and frequently stopped in for tea at their house.

"I would hear that music coming out of that home," recalled MacPhee, who said Rankin's voice had the ability to touch people's hearts, whether she had met them or not.

Even as a youngster, Rankin was known as an entertainer who happily showcased her musical talent at local events and church services.

She would later release two solo albums, one in 2004 and another 2011.

Longtime friend Ed McHugh, who sang with Rankin in choir at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., said her talent was evident early on.

"It sounds cliche, but she had the voice of an angel even in those days," McHugh, 54, said in an interview. "She was a star, but quite humble."

McHugh said Rankin's unassuming nature never wavered even at the peak of The Rankins' success.

"Sometimes when you get into that world, it's easy to shut people off because now you're in a new, brighter, glitzier world," he said. "But through the years, no matter how busy or famous she got, she always remembered her roots back through Mabou and out through Halifax.

"She was a person who never lost touch with people, and she knew tens of thousands of people."

Premier Darrell Dexter, who also attended the service, said Rankin's death would be felt throughout Nova Scotia and beyond.

"This is an extraordinary loss for the province and for the music industry," he told reporters. "I know on a day like today we're all feeling a sense of great remorse and loss."

A second funeral service for Rankin was planned for Friday in Mabou.

Rankin's obituary said she will then be laid to rest at St. Mary's Cemetery in the small community.

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