PROVIDENCE — Bishop Robert E. Mulvee had originally planned to celebrate the confluence of two special anniversaries in his ministry this year with very little fanfare.
To mark the 60th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood and the 40th of his ordination as a bishop, he had planned to make a personal pilgrimage to Lourdes, France.
But during the early spring, when he learned that he was being honored this past May with a diocesan Lumen Gentium Award for Administration and Stewardship, he decided that this would be the most fitting way for him to celebrate these precious milestones — with the people he served during his 10 years as an active bishop in the Diocese of Providence, leading up to his retirement in 2005.
“All of my memories of the priesthood are with the people,” Bishop Mulvee said. “Everything had to do with the people, and so that’s where I wanted to be.”
Despite his longer-than-expected recovery from complications from the back surgery he underwent in Florida over the winter, Bishop Mulvee proudly attended the Lumen Gentium banquet, receiving his award and thanking everyone for their support.
Not one to make a big deal of things, he thought at that point all the celebrating was over.
But just a couple of weeks later, in the final moments of the ordination of three diocesan seminarians to the priesthood in the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul on June 3 — which he also attended — came a recognition of his service that touched him very deeply.
As a full cathedral applauded the newly ordained and the Mass was drawing to a close, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin took a moment to remind everyone of Bishop Mulvee’s special anniversaries this year.
The crowd erupted in a prolonged applause and Bishop Mulvee felt the honor wash over him.
“The most moving remembrance of my 60th anniversary, so far, came at the ordination of the priesthood in the cathedral this year,” he said, recalling the moment in an interview last Thursday with Rhode Island Catholic at the Cathedral Residence where he lives as Bishop Emeritus.
“The priests who were there, they were all remembering their ordination. All the priests and everyone applauded. It really hit me as an incredible moment. I really was moved by that. People were pausing to remember and give thanks to God. I thank Bishop Tobin for that.”
He said that such a celebration is not constituted in a single event; rather, it is sharing such special moments with the people around you.
“You think of all the people whose lives you’ve touched and those who have touched yours — because it’s a two-way street. That was the real celebration for me.”
“It was a surprise to me that it affected me so much,” he said.
This past Sunday, the marking of Bishop Mulvee’s milestone anniversaries culminated in a Mass celebrated by Bishop Tobin at the cathedral.
In his homily on the beautiful, sunny morning, Bishop Tobin again reflected on Bishop Mulvee’s decades of dedicated service and leadership in the Church.
“In a very humble and sincere way we wanted to congratulate Bishop Mulvee and thank him for his long and faithful service to Christ and his Church,” Bishop Tobin said.
“We’re very happy Bishop Mulvee is able to be with us today and he has agreed after a little bit of convincing to say a few words after Communion today and then he’ll be here in the front of the cathedral following Mass to greet people and to impart a priestly blessing upon you if you wish to receive it. So Bishop Mulvee, thank you very much and God bless you.”
In his own remarks near the end of the Mass, Bishop Mulvee said that he could not allow the occasion to pass without saying a word of profound thanks for everyone’s kindness toward him.
He also thanked Bishop Tobin for insisting that the diocese mark his anniversaries in a special way, especially on the recent ordination day.
“I think that at that moment I gave a little prayer of thanks to God that Bishop Tobin had pressed me to celebrate my anniversary because I think the priesthood is the heart of this diocese and Bishop Tobin wants us all to pray every day for more vocations, but he wants us to do more than pray,” Bishop Mulvee said. “I accept your congratulations on my anniversary, but I hope you will join me and Bishop Tobin in praying for more vocations to the priesthood for our own diocese. May God bless the Diocese of Providence.”
Kathleen and Joseph Moniz, parishioners at St. Margaret Church, Rumford, lined up to greet Bishop Mulvee following the Mass.
“We just admire him so much, and his dedication and his spiritual guidance to everyone,” Kathleen Moniz said.
“He’s been such a spiritual priest. Kind and gentle,” Joseph Moniz said.
The Early Years
A Boston native who was considered a late vocation because he didn’t think about becoming a priest until high school, Robert Edward Mulvee entered Newman Prep School for one post high school year to make up for not having studied Latin earlier.
It was during this time that a visit to the school and talk from then-Cardinal Richard Cushing encouraged him to follow the path that led him to where he is today.
“We have more priests in Boston than we’ll ever need,” the cardinal told the students. “You won’t become a pastor of your own parish until you’re in your 60s. Go to a diocese that needs you.”
Heeding the advice, which everyone else did as well — with none of the students going on to study for the Diocese of Boston — the young Mulvee went to the seminary in Louvain, Belgium, where he studied to serve as a priest for the Diocese of Manchester, N.H.
“I was ordained in Belgium at Louvain with only my one brother present,” he recalled of his ordination to the priesthood on June 30, 1957.
“You didn’t come home for ordination, you were ordained right at the seminary.”
He would serve as a priest in Manchester for nearly 20 years before ordained as the diocese’s first auxiliary bishop on April 14, 1977, at the age of 47.
Bishop of Wilmington
After eight years as an auxiliary in Manchester, he was installed as the Bishop of Wilmington, Delaware.
The next 10 years in Wilmington would be some of his most active and exciting years of his ministry.
He served for part of that time as board member of Catholic Relief Services, traveling to some far-flung outposts around the world.
Reading like a chapter from a spy novel, Bishop Mulvee recounted a trip he took on behalf of the organization to post-war Vietnam.
It was a period of instability in which he had to secretly trade for the trip his U.S. passport for an Irish one to shield his identity, with the permission of State Department authorities, so that he could see first hand how Catholic churches in Saigon were faring under communist rule.
Ditching their government minder by telling him that they would be celebrating Mass together in the church for 90 minutes, Bishop Mulvee and a local priest offered a shorter Mass then sneaked into a small side chapel to discuss church business in private.
When he asked the priest what he needed to serve his congregation, the priest replied money, but was doubtful that anyone from the outside could get that to him.
Hearing this, Bishop Mulvee smiled and produced a thick money belt he had been told to wear on the trip and handed it to the priest. It was filled with $100 bills.
“He cried when he saw it,” he remembers.
During his time with CRS he also visited Vladivostok, Russia, bringing goodwill wishes from the people there directly to Pope John Paul II, with whom he met at the Vatican a couple of days later. He also made two trips to India.
Back in Wilmington, he enjoyed serving as the shepherd of one of only two dioceses in the nation whose territory encompasses parts of two states. The other is Arizona.
“It was a unique experience which I loved,” he said, despite sometimes having to fly from one part of the diocese to the other and also holding dual ceremonies, such as two Chrism Masses, and two Christmas Masses.
He also developed a close rapport with one of his parishioners, then-Senator Joe Biden, who lived in Wilmington, and commuted to Washington.
“He would often come over for breakfast,” he remembered, occasions when they would discuss church and world issues.
Bishop of Providence
In 1995, after 10 years in Wilmington, Bishop Mulvee was named by the Vatican to serve in the Diocese of Providence as coadjutor to Bishop Louis E. Gelineau. Bishop Mulvee served alongside Bishop Gelineau until June 1997 when he became the seventh Bishop of Providence.
Known for taking a pastoral approach to matters, Bishop Mulvee often visited the infirm and provided comfort to those who experienced a loss in their lives. This was especially notable during the infamous Station Nightclub fire in February 2003, a tragedy that claimed the lives of 100 West Warwick concert-goers.
As a shepherd, Bishop Mulvee displayed much reverence for the sacraments, especially matrimony and holy orders, commemorating the many years that married couples remained committed to each other by offering special Masses in their honor, and also in presiding over the Holy Hour for Vocations on the eve of ordinations to the priesthood.
In the mid-1980s, a full 15 years before the standard for dealing with clergy sexual abuse matters was announced in the 2001 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, Bishop Mulvee was known for implementing a zero tolerance approach to clerical sex abuse.
He took a strong pastoral approach in meeting with those who said they had been abused in the past.
“It was part of the scene and I dealt with it,” he said. “I met with the victims.”
In October 2000, he showed a special devotion to the Blessed Mother, honoring her by leading 400 faithful from across the diocese on a three-night pilgrimage to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the Holy Year.
Since his retirement in 2005, Bishop Mulvee has split his time between Providence and South Florida, spending the winters in a climate which he says has “added years to my life” by allowing him to remain active when the mercury plummets.
Staff Reporter Lauren Clem reported for this story from the Mass Sunday at the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul.