Archbishop Borders dies at age 96

April 19, 2010|By Liz F. Kay and Erica L. Green | The Baltimore Sun

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.

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