Members of the Kennedy clan were summoned to the family's compound in Hyannis Port Tuesday night to say tearful farewells to the man remembered today as an icon of American politics but known to them as Uncle Teddy.
In keeping with a family tradition, they gathered around the bed of Sen. Ted Kennedy to pray.
The Rev. Patrick Tarrant, who was present with the family during those final hours, said he was impressed by Kennedy's spirituality and faith in his last moments.
The priest said family members were crying and that in his final moments Kennedy was "a man of quiet prayer."
"The truth is, he had expressed to his family that he did want to go," Tarrant told WCVB, ABC News' Boston affiliate. "He did want to go to heaven. He did want to die... He was ready to go.
"There was a certain amount peace -- a lot of peace, actually -- in the family get-together last night. I couldn't help but think that the world doesn't know that part of the senator at all," Tarrant said.
He said Kennedy's wife Vicki, his children and other family members were there.
"They were there and they were very prayerful and reverent and of course, crying," Tarrant said. "Of course they were aware that the very sick, the sense of hearing is the last thing to go. So, whatever is said around the sick bed is always heard by the patient ... and they were very well aware of it. They let him know how much he was loved and cared for and missed. It was quite an experience, for me."
The Roman Catholic priest, who presides at Our Lady of Victory Church and has ministered to the family for years, was called to Kennedy's bedside when he took a "serious turn for the worse" between 9 and 10 p.m. Tuesday.
Kennedy died about 11:30 p.m. comforted by his family, he said.
"I was there last night when he died and the whole family were praying. They'd been praying all day, and it was a wonderful experience for me. I don't see it that often," Tarrant said. "It's commendable."
The reverend said he had seen the Kennedy family's religion at a death bed scene before and recalled how Ted Kennedy led a similar vigil at the bedside of his sister Eunice just two weeks ago.
"I couldn't help but think that the world doesn't know that part of the senator at all," he said.
Officials prepared for an elaborate and emotional farewell to Kennedy. He will lie in repose at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston on Thursday and Friday, followed by a funeral at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica, also in Boston, on Saturday. He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetary Saturday evening.
The death of the 77-year-old senator ended a year-long bout with brain cancer. Much of the country had been holding its breath as the senator battled for his life in recent days, too ill to return to Washington to join the debate over health care reform, one of Kennedy's most passionate issues over the past 30 years.
Word of Kennedy's death came early today, prompting an outpouring of praise lauding the brother of assassinated President John F. Kennedy and presidential contender and former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy as one of the most influential politicians of the last century.
President Obama said in a statement that he and first lady Michelle Obama were "heartbroken" to learn of Kennedy's death, calling the Democratic senator "our dear friend."
"An important chapter in our history has come to an end. Our country has lost a great leader, who picked up the torch of his fallen brothers and became the greatest United States senator of our time," Obama said in a written statement.
Obama interrupted his vacation at Martha's Vineyard today to make a public statement in which he called Kennedy, "one of the most accomplished Americans ever to serve this democracy."
The president said legislation Kennedy fought for affected millions of Americans, "including myself."
In one of the many dramatic moments of his long career, Kennedy came out late in the bruising 2008 Democratic presidential primary and endorsed Obama over Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., with a roaring speech that typified the last "liberal lion" of the Senate.
"The torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans," he declared, invoking echoes of the Kennedy family's golden years of Camelot.
A few hours after Kennedy died, the family issued a statement that said, "We've lost the irreplaceable center of our family and joyous light in our lives, but the inspiration of his faith, optimism, and perseverance will live on in our hearts forever."
Kennedy had battled his brain cancer since first being diagnosed last May, remaining active up to his final days. He strategized with Obama and Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd on the health care reform bill, and even pressing for a new law in Massachusetts that would allow the governor to quickly appoint a successor instead of waitiing for a special election.
Sen. Robert Byrd, a Democrat from West Virginia, praised his longtime friend and said any healthcare bill should be named in his honor.
"I had hoped and prayed that this day would never come. My heart and soul weeps at the lost of my best friend in the Senate, my beloved friend, Ted Kennedy," Byrd, the longest serving senator in history, said of Kennedy, the third-longest serving senator.
ABC News' Dr. Tim Johnson said Kennedy had the worst kind of brain cancer, but he "outlived his prognosis by a few months." Johnson said Kennedy "died gradually over a few days."
The family had hoped that Kennedy would live long enough to see health care reform passed and to see his memoir come out in October, according to ABC News' Senior Washington Correspondent George Stephanopoulos.
The last time Kennedy was seen in public was on Aug. 3, when he was wheeled out for a final sailing trip on the waters off his beloved Cape Cod.
"He was a quite extraordinary person," Bob Shrum, a lifelong friend and former Kennedy press secretary, told ABC's "Good Morning America" today. "He had an indomitable spirit that really saw him through this illness and made him perhaps the greatest senator of the last 100 years."
Shrum recalled one of Kennedy's last hurrahs, saying it was difficult for Kennedy to leave the hospital and go to the Democratic National Convention last year. Shrum said he prepared brief remarks for the ailing Kennedy to deliver, but Kennedy rejected them.
"I'm not coming to the Democratic convention to speak for 30 seconds," Kennedy growled.
Shrum said that more than 2,500 pieces of legislation have Kennedy's name on them, and more than 300 became law.
"He really accomplished more than many presidents do," he said.
Shrum Kennedy's determination to fight for health care reform even while dying was typical.
"He could weigh in on the phone… he was talking to the president," he told "GMA." "It was the cause of his life and he fought it all the way to the end of his life."
"His basic instruction was to keep pushing forward…I think he believed and we believe that there's forward momentum here," Obama's senior adviser David Axelrod told "GMA."
Even political foes praised Kennedy. Former president George H.W. Bush, a Republican, issued a statement calling Kennedy a "seminal figure" and offered his condolences on behalf of himself and his wife Barbara.
"While we didn't see eye-to-eye on many political issues through the years, I always respected his steadfast public service," Bush said.
Calling him by the family nickname "Teddy," California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who is married to Kennedy's niece Maria Shriver, lauded Kennedy's work on health care.
"Teddy taught us all that public service isn't a hobby or even an occupation, but a way of life, and his legacy will live on," Schwarzenegger said.
Nancy Regan, wife of former President Ronald Regan, said the two men respected each other despite their divergent political views.
"Ronnie and Ted could always find common ground, and they had great respect for one another. In recent years, Ted and I found our common ground in stem cell research, and I considered him an ally and a dear friend," Regan said in a statement.
Kennedy's life began as one of nine children of Joe and Rose Kennedy, who groomed their children for public service, even the presidency. His mother's famous motto was, "To whom much is given, much is expected."
It took a while for Ted Kennedy, the youngest of the famous brothers, to live up to that standard. He was kicked out of Harvard College for cheating, though he was later readmitted and graduated. It was the first of several incidents that tarnished Kennedy's early reputation.
He was elected to the Senate in 1962, taking over the Massachussets seat after his brother John became president. He survived a plane crash that broke his back, endured the assassinations of his brothers, and bore the mantle of the family's last hope for a presidential dynasty.
Those hopes were dashed in 1969, however, when Kennedy veered off a bridge in Chappaquiddick, killing young Kennedy volunteer Mary Jo Kopechne. Kennedy's failure to save her or report her death for 10 hours haunted his career and was considered partly to blame for his failure to wrest the Democratic nomination from President Jimmy Carter in 1980, his last attempt to win the presidency.
While often crafting key legislation on civil rights and education, Kennedy's problems continued with a reputation for drinking. It wasn't until he met his second wife Vicki, whom he married in 1992, that he settled down and solidified the legacy that has formed around his nearly 50 years in the Senate.
"This is a man who I think should be seen as a story of redemption," Newsweek's Jon Meachem told "GMA." "It makes it more interesting, and I think it's more accurate."
"I think you can see the last 40 years to let the 'better angels of his nature,' as Lincoln said, win out," Meachem said.
Leaders from around the world today mourned Kennedy, many of them praising the Irish-American politician for his role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland.
Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen described Kennedy as "a great friend of Ireland," thanking him for using "his considerable influence in the world's most powerful parliament for the betterment of this island."
"In good days and bad," Cowen said, "Ted Kennedy worked valiantly for the cause of peace on this island... Today, America has lost a great and respected statesman ,and Ireland has lost a long-standing and true friend."
In the United Kingdom, Kennedy was mourned by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who called Kennedy "the senator of senators."
"Sen. Edward Kennedy will be mourned not just in America but in every continent," Brown said. Britain honored Kennedy with a knighthood in March of this year.