CHARLESTON — Arthur McFarland said a trip to Cartagena, Colombia, to visit the place where St. Peter Claver brought spiritual solace to slaves reinforced his lifelong commitment to serving others.
“I went there and walked the floors he walked, looked out the windows to the harbor,” McFarland said. “He is, I think, an example of one who gave up a very comfortable life to serve. He served individuals who were my ancestors in essence. I learned from him what kind of heroic life comes out of that same kind of giving back. He lived out Catholic social teaching.”
McFarland, a chief municipal judge, is a 20-year member of the Knights of Peter Claver. He is known for his work to advance the lives of blacks in the Diocese of Charleston and around the nation. The organization was founded in 1909, and is historically the largest lay organization for black Catholics.
McFarland is immediate past supreme Knight, and the highest-ranking member of the Knights in the diocese. He belongs to St. Peter Council No. 110 at St. Patrick Church in Charleston.
He became a national advocate for the Knights of Peter Claver in 1994, and served as National Supreme Knight from 2000-2006.
In an interview with The Miscellany, McFarland said he was first asked to join the Knights by members of the ladies auxiliary at St. Patrick.
“They convinced me to join because of my involvement in the church and general community, and they thought the Knights would be a good place to use some of my talents,” he said. “I was accepted for membership in Council 110 and the rest is history.”
McFarland also holds other leadership roles in the Catholic community. He serves on the board of trustees for the National Black Catholic Congress, is chief parliamentarian for the National Association of Black Catholic Administrators, and is an observer on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ domestic policy committee.
McFarland, 61, grew up in Charleston and attended Immaculate Conception School, the Catholic elementary and high school for black students during segregation. In 1964, he was one of nine black students who transferred to Bishop England High School when it was desegregated. He graduated from Notre Dame University with a degree in government, and received his law degree from the University of Virginia. After graduation, he spent a year working as a fellow with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York City before moving back to South Carolina.
He has been a judge in the Charleston Municipal Court since 1976, and also has a law practice.
McFarland’s parents were not Catholic, but he converted in sixth grade while attending Immaculate Conception. He belonged to St. Peter Church before it was merged with St. Patrick in the 1970s.
McFarland says the Knights of Peter Claver is an important organization because it encourages black Catholics to become more involved in the church and evangelizes to the community. He said one of his goals on both the state and national level is to bring black Cath olics who may have left the church back into the fold.
“Black Catholics have so much to offer within the church, and to the extent we grow our membership, we then expand our Catholic hand in a much broader way into the African-American community,” he said. “Catholic social teaching has a lot to offer when it comes to addressing some of the issues we find in our society and in the African-American community.”
He is proud of his accomplishments as a leader in the organization, such as increas ing membership statewide and encouraging councils in community service.
While he was a Supreme Knight, McFarland said he started a program to offer membership to bishops and cardinals.
“We wanted to become more engaged with the bishops, and we brought approximately 25 bishops to our membership rosters,” he said.
McFarland said he is also proud of the work members did to keep the organization functioning when Hurricane Katrina flooded their national headquarters in New Orleans in 2005.
“It took some special efforts because our staff was dispersed to all parts of the South and Southwest,” he said. “A parish in Montgomery, Ala., gave us office space and we held board meetings there. Just being able to keep the organization going at that time was probably the most difficult thing I did, and the most rewarding.”
McFarland is committed to keeping the memory of Charles ton’s black Catholic history alive. He serves on a committee to preserve St. John’s Cemetery, a historic burial place for black Catholics in Charleston during the 19th century.
He and his wife, Elise Davis-McFarland, have two children, Kira and William. Davis-McFarland is vice-president for student services at Trident Technical College.
Kathleen Merritt, director of the office of ethnic ministries for the diocese, said McFarland has encouraged her in her work with national black Catholic organizations, and also is an inspiration because of his commitment to service on so many levels.
“He’s served as a mentor to me because of his experience on the national level, and his talents and skills are very much appreciated in the African-American community,” Merritt said. “He’s a great resource and ‘no’ is never in his vocabulary. He’s always willing to come to the plate and assist. You can tell that God is present and working in him.”