As senators, sports legends, former presidents and much of the White House cabinet descended on Boston’s Mission Hill neighborhood last week to pay respects to Sen. Edward Kennedy, a crowd of locals stood in the rain to catch a glimpse of the ceremony. Though an invitation-only affair, Kennedy’s funeral in the heart of urban Boston was intended for mass consumptiona fitting contrast for a man who led a privileged life yet fought for the working class and poor.

“Because of Ted, I’m here today,” said Diana Thompson, as she leaned against a security rail with her sister, daughter and nephew. Thompson immigrated to Massachusetts from the Dominican Republic in the 1980s and credited Kennedy’s spearheading of civil rights and immigration reform with her arrival. “He fought for us black people, to make us free so that we could be in this country,” she said.

As a freshman senator, Kennedy’s first major accomplishment was advocating for an end to an immigration system based on national-origin quotas, resulting in the landmark Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. In the 1980s and 1990s, Kennedy also shepherded several updates to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Joseph Aoude, Thompson’s young nephew, added that Kennedy was “awesome and inspiring.”

“There’s something about him that makes everyone want to say, ‘Hi, Ted Kennedy,’” Aoude said. “That’s why we’re down here today, to realize that he’s gone. We all want to say goodbye to him, but we can’t.”

Thompson and Aoude watched the televised funeralincluding President Barack Obama’s eulogy and emotional speeches by the Kennedy familythrough the window of a corner convenience store a block down from the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

From the rooftops of traditional brick row houses, Mission Hill residents gazed down at the towering, 19th-century basilica, which stood in contrast to the city’s financial center in the distance. Someone held up a sign that read, “Thank you, Senator,” which reflected off the dark windows of security-detailed buses that carried senators and congressmen.

Inside the church, beyond wooden doors and a gold-laced facade of the Virgin Mary holding a baby Jesus, mourners sat in stuffy aisles while incense burned and fans turned.

“We were all sweating together,” said Liz Reed, who met Kennedy through her aunt, Carolyn Tribe, who had worked on Sargent Shriver’s 1976 presidential campaign and was a political advisor to Kennedy.

Meanwhile, as the remnants of Hurricane Bill passed through the city, observers formed their own congregation against the metal gate and beneath scattered umbrellas. Thompson and Aoude watched as Kennedy’s hearse drove by, while streams of mournersincluding a rain-soaked Bill Russell and Tom Brokawwalked behind them, gazing at the sidewalk blankly. A stoic Maria Shriver gathered young girls in the Kennedy family and boarded one of the buses.

Vicki Kennedy, Ted’s widow, watched, mouth agape, as an honor guard of white-gloved U.S. military officers placed the flag-wrapped casket into the hearse. Honorary pallbearers, including Sens. Chris Dodd and John Kerry, watched from the church’s steps.

Earlier, the officers had arrived in a speeding motorcade and scrambled to tuck in their shirts before emerging in slow, graceful lockstep, to carry Kennedy’s body in and out of the church.

After watching their final movements, Vicki joined the family in a motorcade that included Caroline Kennedy, who sat still in a limo, its clear windows obscured by rain.

Carmen Cordero, a building manager at a nearby community center, grew up in Mission Hill and said she “couldn’t believe” the ceremony had unfolded in her neighborhood.

“That’s an honor to us,” she said.

Like Thompson and Aoude, she stood in the rain, she says, “just to pay respect” to Kennedy. “He did so much for the poor people, the lower class, the minorities,” she said.

Kennedy’s fight for health care, including mental health parity, is well known. He also vigorously defended rights for people with disabilities, minorities, womenincluding pay equityand gays and lesbians. He worked on hate crimes legislation that passed Congress but was vetoed by President George W. Bush.

“His legacy should go on,” Cordero said. “We really need people like him, but I don’t think there’ll be another like him.”

Correction (Sept. 3, 2009): The name of Ted Kennedy’s widow has been corrected.