Archbishop Borders dies at age 96

Archbishop William Donald Borders, who applied leadership lessons learned as a decorated military chaplain while guiding Baltimore's Catholics for 15 years, died Monday morning at the Stella Maris hospice in Timonium, the Archdiocese of Baltimore announced. He was 96.

As spiritual leader of the area's half-million Catholics from 1974 until 1989, Archbishop Borders oversaw the division of the archdiocese into vicariates, reorganized Archdiocesan Central Services, and clarified and strengthened the role of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council and the Priests' Council.

"It was our loss and heaven's gain," said Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien at a Monday news conference announcing the archbishop's death. "I don't know that there's a replacement for that kind of priesthood."

Archbishop Borders, who had suffered from colon cancer, entered hospice care in March.

"He was a fighter to the end — he was very vigilant and aware of what was going on in the diocese," said Archbishop O'Brien, adding that Archbishop Borders kept abreast of local news, even the reports on his deteriorating medical condition.

Archbishop Borders was known locally and nationally for his unassuming manner.

During Mass at Baltimore's Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on Monday afternoon, the Rev. Gilbert Seitz incorporated the archbishop's reputation for humility into his sermon, recalling fondly the archbishop's trademark question: "How are you feeling?"

"If you didn't tell him how you were feeling, he'd ask you again," Father Seitz recalled to about a dozen worshippers.

"If I had to describe him, I'd say down-to-earth," said Kathy Wandishin, a Basilica parishioner who was attending Mass and works at the Catholic Center, which shares a building with the Archdiocese of Baltimore's headquarters.

"Sometimes I think the church gets a bad [reputation] because of hierarchy, but he was very humble — a true servant. It was always a level playing field with him."

Born Oct. 19, 1913, in Washington, Ind., the third of seven children in a strong Catholic family, Archbishop Borders lived in his own estimation "an average life," including dating regularly, he said in a 2007 interview.

"I had the example of two young priests who really offered marvelous service to people," he said. After his senior year of high school, he surprised his friends by entering St. Meinrad's Seminary in Indiana. He later completed his training at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans.

He was ordained in 1940 and assigned to Sacred Heart parish in Baton Rouge. After Pearl Harbor was attacked, "there was a heavy draft for young men going into the service," the archbishop said. "I thought in terms of what they were going to encounter. They would definitely need the presence of a chaplain, and so I volunteered."

It was during a year spent as a chaplain with the 362nd Infantry Regiment of the 91st Infantry Division that he developed the management philosophy he followed while leading the Diocese of Orlando, Fla., and the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

"In a drafted army, you had many competent people but you had many incompetent people," he said. "I encountered people who were incompetent that caused deaths, and that affected my evaluation of anyone in authority.

"I judged their ability, not their rank," he said. "That affected my entire life when dealing with people."

During World War II, the chaplain achieved the rank of major for his service in Italy and North Africa. Later, he was awarded the Bronze Star for valor. "I picked up a soldier under fire and carried him to safety, running like nobody's business," he said. According to a 2005 news report, he anointed the soldier and moved on, never learning his name.

"There aren't many archbishops that have actually seen live combat in battle," said the Rev. Robert F. Leavitt, whom Archbishop Borders appointed as president-rector of St. Mary's Seminary & University in Roland Park in 1980. "If anything, it made him extraordinarily compassionate with people."

After he was discharged, then-Father Borders returned to the Diocese of New Orleans, where he founded a minor seminary high school in Baton Rouge.

In 1959, he became the chaplain at Louisiana State University, where he also taught philosophy and religion. About 40 percent of LSU's approximately 30,000 students were Catholic.

He also served as pastor of St. Joseph Cathedral in Baton Rouge.

The priest attended the last two of four sessions of the Second Vatican Council as a peritus, or expert, on the priesthood and ecumenical relations.

Six months later, he was named bishop of the newly formed Diocese of Orlando, which encompassed seven central Florida counties.

The area, carved out of the dioceses of Miami and St. Augustine, had some established institutions such as schools and hospitals. But then-Bishop Borders had to offer services to a burgeoning population of Spanish-speaking immigrants from Cuba and elsewhere, as well as migrant workers.

"You had to get some people who knew what they were doing," he said. "The key really in administration is to find somebody in every department that knew more than I did."

He spent six months getting to know the community and his staff. He waited before making changes and organizing a structure. "People in schools and in charities were doing their jobs," Archbishop Borders said. "They needed to be coordinated, but they didn't need to be coordinated yesterday."

At meetings he would allow heads of his departments to hash out their differences, sometimes asking questions to direct the conversations. "When you have competent people, you can do that," he said.

The prelate used the same approach six years later, when he was appointed to replace Cardinal Lawrence J. Shehan as the 13th archbishop of Baltimore.

"I didn't change my style at all," he said, although the archdiocese was three times as large.

He chose "I will listen that I may serve" as his motto.

"He didn't mind getting in the fray of an argument. He actually liked debate," said Monsignor G. Michael Schleupner, pastor of St. Margaret Church in Bel Air. He served as the archbishop's chancellor, or executive assistant, for a decade.

"What people had to learn is when he voiced his point of view, it was at least in the beginning of the discussion he would shape decisions from the debate."

"I think he had a pretty uncanny ability to assess people's strengths and use their strengths," Monsignor Schleupner added.

Those who knew him in Orlando and Baltimore admired his devotion to fellow priests and religious members.

"He knew every sister in the diocese by name," said Sister Rosalie Murphy, a retired Archdiocese of Baltimore official. She met the archbishop while she was an administrator for the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, which sent four women to establish the migrant ministry in Orlando.

"He didn't have a large population, but that was the kind of base he set up in terms of his leadership."

During his tenure in Baltimore, every time the Rev. Richard Lawrence's father entered the hospital with a stroke — he had 25 — Archbishop Borders visited the family in the hospital, Father Lawrence said.

"These are his men. This is a priority," said Father Lawrence, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church, who served as the chief financial officer under Archbishop Borders.

Baltimore presented challenges also, in its poverty as well as its diversity — "you had to make sure you didn't lump everybody in the same category. You had to recognize the diversity, background and talents," Archbishop Borders said.

The archbishop said he arrived in the city amid two crises: the police strike and integration of schools.

In October, "I went on TV and asked for peace," Archbishop Borders said. "I had been here six months, and I recommended that some parents travel the school buses, and they did it. I didn't have any authority at all. I just made the recommendation."

"I didn't want any chaos on buses. You don't know what kids are going to do when they're not accustomed to associating with each other."

Several months later, he suffered a serious heart attack while on retreat and took two months off to recover.

Archbishop Borders organized the diocese into three vicariates and appointed his auxiliary bishops to lead them.

He also put in place the changes directed by the Second Vatican Council, such as establishing lay parish councils to guide pastors. Archbishop Borders also organized representatives from these councils into area councils, each leading up to the pastoral council.

"I think Archbishop Borders really grasped Vatican II," Sister Rosalie said. "I think many bishops came home, and then they realized what they had done over there. Some of the things they had set in motion were very radical."

"He was a strong believer in lay ministry and collegiality," Father Lawrence said.

He also advocated for leadership of women within the church. In addition to writing a pastoral letter, "Women in the Church," the archbishop appointed the archdiocese's first female pastoral director, Sister Jane Coyle, who led the parish of Corpus Christi in Bolton Hill for 13 years.

He also brought Sister Rosalie to the archdiocese as director of the Division of Collegial Services, overseeing the councils of lay, religious and priests. Until then, all division heads were male.

After gay Catholics criticized his opposition to proposed gay-rights legislation for Baltimore, Archbishop Borders was cheered when he established the archdiocese's ministry to homosexuals in 1981, according to news reports at the time.

The archbishop also hosted "Realities," a Sunday television talk show, for 11 years. He invited guests to speak on a theme, such as integration or theology, and volunteers would take questions from callers.

"We tried to answer all the questions that were relevant, and since there were always more questions than you could handle, you put the kook questions on the bottom," he said. "You'd address the controversial questions, though."

"Basically, I'm a realist. I deal with people hopefully as they are, not as I would want them to be," he said.

Newspaper accounts chronicled rumors during Archbishop Borders' tenure that he might be named a cardinal himself. . However, only three of Baltimore's 15 archbishops have received "red hats" — one of them being Cardinal William H. Keeler, who succeeded Archbishop Borders in 1989.

Archbishop Borders then resumed teaching, this time a 12-course series for adults about living a moral life amid modern challenges. He presented the work at about 20 parishes within the archdiocese as well as churches at six dioceses across the country. The classes later formed the basis of his 1996 book, "Spiritual Living in Secular Society: The Teachings of Archbishop William D. Borders."

He maintained a modest, frugal life. Rather than displace Cardinal Shehan, who lived at the residence of the Basilica of the Assumption, the archbishop moved into the former sexton's lodge — now the gift shop of the restored church. He lived there alone.

Newspaper accounts described him carrying his own luggage and putting powdered milk in his coffee. And unlike Cardinal Shehan, who entertained guests over dinner, Archbishop Borders preferred lunch meetings.

"It was classic. We would make fun of it," Monsignor Schleupner said. "You know what your lunch would be. It would be a bowl of homemade soup, a sandwich — tuna fish, ham and cheese — some fruit for dessert, and iced tea. That was it. It was very simple." He wore a simple bishop's ring, engraved with a cross, Monsignor Schleupner said.

Some of the same disputes involving the Catholic Church in recent years also affected Archbishop Borders. He was among those named in two lawsuits: one in Baltimore in 1993 and another in Orlando in 2003. In both cases, he was accused of knowing about alleged abuse by priests in his dioceses but avoiding action against them. The conditions of the Baltimore settlement remain confidential; the Orlando case was settled without the archbishop's admitting any wrongdoing.

The archbishop moved to Mercy Ridge retirement community in 2003, where he continued to minister to a faith community. He offered Mass with at least 50 people every day. About eight other retired priests lived there as well.

The archbishop continued to read philosophy and sociology and theology, the last subject to remain current for his homilies.

He could understand Spanish and Cajun, though he couldn't speak Cajun well.

Father Leavitt, the president-rector of St. Mary's Seminary, described the archbishop as an avid golfer, despite wearing a back brace while playing.

"He wanted to win every hole, and if there was any money riding on it, he was even more competitive, and a lot of fun on the golf course because of that," Father Leavitt said.

Services will be held at 1 p.m. Friday at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, 5200 N. Charles St. Viewings will be held at the cathedral from 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and 9 a.m. to noon Friday.

Archbishop Borders is survived by a sister, a brother, and numerous nieces and nephews.

Baltimore Sun staff researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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