SEPT. 13, 1935 | APRIL 11, 2017
WHEN PRINCETON’S LONGTIME dean of the Chapel, Ernest Gordon, announced in 1981 that he would retire, the University decided to reassess how religious life on campus might be changed to ensure that all members of Princeton’s diversifying community felt welcomed. The abolishment of mandatory Chapel attendance years earlier meant that young people were no longer filling the pews every Sunday. How could Princeton support students, faculty, and staff from a variety of faiths so that religious life would remain relevant?
Enter Fred Borsch ’57, dean and professor at California’s Church Divinity School of the Pacific, who succeeded Gordon as dean. He created programs such as the Interfaith Council, which brought students from different religious backgrounds together for a meal at his house. Dinnertime discussions covered a breadth of topics, including sexuality, scripture, and success and failure. In 1988 — his last year as dean — Borsch told the Prince that “religious tolerance and openness are not things you ever fully accomplish; they’re goals you keep working on constantly. But I do feel that the University has moved noticeably in that direction.”
“Religious diversity was growing a lot” in the 1980s, says Alison Boden, the dean today. Borsch realized that early on, she says: “He was the person who began thinking creatively about what else we could do to meet people’s spiritual questioning. He was really passionate about relevance, and ensuring that religious life was [relevant] to the lives students were leading.”
Borsch appointed Sue Anne Steffey Morrow — the first clergywoman to serve on the Chapel staff — as assistant dean of the chapel in 1981. Borsch was outspoken in his support for Morrow’s work with LGBT students, which created a framework for what would become the University’s LGBT Center.
Borsch, a former Princeton trustee, continued to serve as an advocate for LGBT people during his tenure as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles from 1988 to 2002, where he supported the right of gay men and women to marry. He pushed for a living wage in Los Angeles and marched outside a Beverly Hills hotel with workers demanding higher pay. Borsch also supported the ordination of women and the welfare of the large Hispanic and black communities in his six-county diocese.
“He felt that the Church needed to be there if there was an uproar about something that was happening in the world,” says his wife, Barbara. “He believed that if you were an active Christian, it’s your duty to be looking out for other people — and he did.”
“I don’t sit at the big throne in the church because I don’t like the image of it,” Borsch told the Los Angeles Times in 1999. “Occasionally, while I’m by myself, I’ll go and sit there with my prayer book in hand. And you know what? It’s incredibly comfortable! You should try it some time.”
Allie Wenner is a PAW staff writer.