From humble beginnings to a ministry that took him around the world

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Born in the West Roxbury section of Boston on Feb. 15, 1930, Robert Edward Mulvee, the son of the late John F. and Jennie T. (Bath) Mulvee, grew up eating Christmas Eve dinners of oyster stew and big unsalted crackers before his mother died in 1943 around the time of his 13th birthday.

The young man who would one day become a bishop was considered a late vocation because he didn’t discern a life of priestly service until the latter half of his high school years.

He entered Newman Prep School for one post high school year to compensate for not having studied Latin earlier.

It was during this time that a visit to the school and a talk from then-Cardinal Richard Cushing encouraged him to follow a path to the priesthood.

“We have more priests in Boston than we’ll ever need,” Bishop Mulvee told Rhode Island Catholic in a 2017 interview, recalling the cardinal’s message to 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 his fellow classmates did as well — with not one of his classmates going on to study for the Archdiocese of Boston — the young Mulvee prepared for the priesthood at Saint Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield, Connecticut; Saint Paul Seminary at the University of Ottawa, Canada; and the American College at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium.

He was ordained for the Diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire, on June 30, 1957 at Louvain, with only his one brother present.

“You didn’t come home for ordination; you were ordained right at the seminary,” he recalled.

Over the next several years he would serve at a number of parishes in the Granite State before returning to Europe for graduate study.

In 1964 he completed his doctorate in Canon Law at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome and also received a master’s degree in religious education from the Catholic University of Louvain. Later that year, he was named assistant chancellor of the New Hampshire Diocese and began a career in which he held numerous diocesan and parish positions.

In 1966, Saint Pope Paul VI named him a papal chamberlain with the title of monsignor. In 1972, Msgr. Mulvee was named chancellor of the Diocese of Manchester.

It was during this time that then-Msgr. Mulvee would encourage an accounting teacher who was studying for his doctorate in education accounting at Boston College to instead pursue a priestly vocation. In doing so, he developed a friendship that would last for decades to come.

The monsignor was a friend of the spiritual director at the college who saw the potential for a priestly vocation in one of his graduate students. The director asked Msgr. Mulvee to speak with him about it just as the student was about to take a sabbatical from his studies.

While the student was about to take a sabbatical one year, Bishop Mulvee suggested that he visit a local seminary to discern a vocation.

“He said ‘Bert, why don’t you use that sabbatical to go to Pope John XXIII Seminary, now Pope St. John XXIII Seminary, and see if the priesthood is for you.’ I did and I never went back [to Boston College]. I became a priest,” Father Humbert Oliveira, known widely as Father Bert, recalled of the moment that would change his life.

“He really is responsible for my vocation,” he said of his friend.

Father Bert would be ordained to the priesthood in May 1977 in the Diocese of Manchester.

One month earlier, on April 14, 1977, at the age of 47, Msgr. Mulvee was ordained at St. Joseph Cathedral as the first auxiliary bishop in Manchester.

Bishop of Wilmington, Delaware

After serving for eight years as an auxiliary bishop in Manchester, Bishop Mulvee was installed in 1985 as the seventh Bishop of Wilmington, Delaware.

The next 10 years in Wilmington would be some of the most active and exciting years of his ministry.

He served for part of that time as a board member with Catholic Relief Services, traveling to some of the most far-flung outposts around the world. It was during this time that met St. Teresa of Calcutta.

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 trade his U.S. passport for an Irish one, with the permission of State Department authorities, so that he could visit local churches in Saigon to determine how they 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 the local priest offered a shorter Mass then proceeded 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 remembered.

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, as well as India, on two occasions.

Back in Wilmington, he enjoyed serving as the shepherd of one of only a handful of dioceses in the nation whose territory overlaps parts of two states.

“It was a unique experience which I loved,” he recalled, despite sometimes having to fly from one part of the diocese to the other and also holding dual ceremonies, such as two Chrism Masses, two Christmas Masses.

He also developed a close rapport with then-Senator Joe Biden, who lived in Wilmington. Biden, who would go on to become vice president, was a longtime parishioner in the diocese.

“He would come over for breakfast,” Bishop Mulvee recalled, noting how Biden would call first to ask if he were having coffee and if so, ask him to put two cups on so they could discuss church and world issues around the kitchen table.

Bishop W. Francis Malooly, the ninth and current bishop of Wilmington, issued a statement on the passing of Bishop Mulvee.

“We are saddened to learn of the passing of our friend, brother, and predecessor, Bishop Robert Mulvee,” Bishop Malooly said. “I had the pleasure of working with Bishop Mulvee as part of the Maryland Catholic Conference while I was serving in the Archdiocese of Baltimore during his ten years tenure as Bishop of Wilmington. The people of this diocese had a great affection and admiration for Bishop Mulvee, and he loved and cherished them.”

“He was a dedicated and faith-filled leader who will be greatly missed. I join the Catholic community of Delaware and Maryland’s Eastern Shore in sending our heart-felt condolences to Bishop Tobin and the Catholic community of Rhode Island during this time of shared loss.”

In addition to his work with Catholic Relief Services, where he served as chairman of the Human Resources Committee, Bishop Mulvee was active on boards and committees including the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C.; Providence College; Salve Regina University; Saint John XXIII Seminary in Weston, Massachusetts; and the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C.

In 1995, after serving a decade as shepherd in Wilmington, Bishop Mulvee came to the Diocese of Providence where he would serve for the next decade, until the age of 75, when Saint Pope John Paul II accepted his letter of retirement on March 31, 2005.

He would continue to live at the cathedral residence while spending his winters in Palm Beach, Florida, and his summers on Cape Cod.

According to Father Bert, Bishop Mulvee remained close to his older brother Paul, as well as his nieces and nephews living on and around the South Shore of Massachusetts.

“He was the kindest man you’d ever want to meet. He was a great listener, and with a great sense of humor he was loved by everyone,” Father Bert said of his dear friend.