As many families do when parents age, the tight-knit Harvey clan takes turns looking out for matriarch, Ruth Harvey, 87, especially since their father, Robert Harvey, died four years ago.
So it was not unusual when eldest child, Jim, stepped forward last year and invited her to spend January and February at his residence … in Rome … at the Vatican.
“My kids are so wonderful,” Ruth told your Catholic Herald, “and I think Jim must have said, ‘It’s my turn to have mom.’”
Ruth spent the first two months of the year living near the papal residence, in an apartment that was once the residence of Pope Julius II. He’d celebrate Mass for her in the chapel and she’d spend her days in his apartment while he’d spend his with Pope Benedict XVI.
“One of my friends asked me, ‘Did you meet the pope?’ Ruth shared during an interview in her home on Milwaukee’s west side in early November. “Well, yes,” Ruth said she responded. “I met him in the hallway, passing him in the walkway one morning, and I just said, ‘Hi.’”
Like her eldest son, James M. Harvey, who was elevated to the rank of cardinal on Nov. 24, Ruth, a member of St. Margaret Mary Parish, Milwaukee, is unassuming and private.
She lives in a non-descript condominium tucked along a winding roadway. A small bronze nameplate on the doorway reads, “The Harvey’s,” but there’s nothing to indicate that the residence is home to the mother of the man who’s spent 30 years working at the Vatican, the last 14 as head of the papal household, serving Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict. In that role, he arranged daily meetings for the pontiffs. When heads of state made official visits to the pope, it was Cardinal Harvey who greeted them and escorted them to the pope.
In fact, during a July 2011 vespers service at St. Anthony Parish, Menomonee Falls, on the eve of Bishop Donald J. Hying’s episcopal ordination, Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki introduced Cardinal Harvey as “the second most photographed person in the world,” referring to the fact that he appears in so many of the papal photographs alongside the pontiff.
Cardinal Harvey is the eldest of Ruth and Robert’s five children, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. With the exception of Cardinal Harvey, they all live in the Milwaukee area. The family includes, daughter Kathy Braun and husband, Tim; Bill and his wife, Pam; Karen, who moved from California and resides with her mother, and Michael and his wife, Barb.
Ruth recalled that her eldest child was bright, able to read and write things ahead of most children his age. He attended elementary school at the family’s home parish of St. John de Nepomuc on Milwakuee’s north side.
“It seems like Jim wanted to be a priest from the time he was born,” she said, adding that he looked to the nuns at his school and parish priests as role models.
Cardinal Harvey earned a high school scholarship from his grade school, one of the reasons he went on to De Sales Preparatory Seminary in St. Francis, according to his mother.
Even though her son moved to Rome some 30 years ago, Ruth said she talks to him by phone weekly.
When he calls, he’s always interested to hear about the family, said his sister-in-law, Barb Harvey, a member of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, New Berlin.
“He’s very thoughtful, always calling to see how we are doing, and he really adores his nieces and nephews,” she added.
Barb and her husband, Mike, Cardinal Harvey’s younger brother, were in Rome visiting him in late October when Pope Benedict announced he would be named a cardinal.
“He was surprised and not expecting it,” said Barb of her brother-in-law’s reaction to the appointment. “Mike and I, we’re obviously all very proud of him and very happy for him. He’s such a nice man,” she said, describing his unexpectedly dry sense of humor and his precise ability to remember names, dates and people.
Cardinal Harvey maintains a deep love for his hometown of Milwaukee, agreed his mother and sister-in-law. Every summer, during the pope’s summer vacation in northern Italy, Cardinal Harvey returns to Milwaukee for about a month. He’ll spend much of that vacation either on the golf course, playing the game he learned from his father, a former golf pro who taught the sport at Shorewood High School, or just catching up with friends.
“Last year, I asked him, ‘Am I going to get to cook you a real meal?’” asked his mother, referring to the fact that during his visit, Cardinal Harvey had so many lunch and dinner invitations that he was rarely home for dinner with her. During his visits, they said Cardinal Harvey is sure to catch up with the seminarians and priests who spent time studying in Rome.
The entire Harvey clan – with the exception of the great-grandchildren – were in Rome for the consistory as the man they know as “Uncle Jim” became a cardinal.
The upcoming trip caused Ruth to recall another visit by the family to Rome, when her son was ordained a bishop in 1998. One of Barb’s children was fascinated by the fact that every time “Uncle Jim” passed one of the Swiss Guards, he was saluted.
“Bob said to (the child) go over and walk by Uncle Jim, and sure enough, the guard saluted as the two of them passed. I thought that was really cute,” said Ruth.
Yet she knows her son doesn’t like the limelight, and instead sees himself as a humble servant of the church.
“Jim is the quiet type,” she said, noting how proud she is of her son, adding she knows her husband would also be proud of his first-born.