Norman McFarland dies at 88; second bishop of Orange County’s Roman Catholic diocese

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Norman McFarland, a deft financial administrator who was the second bishop to lead Orange County’s Roman Catholic diocese, has died. He was 88.

McFarland died Friday at his home in Orange of cardiac arrest after a brief illness, the diocese said.

A towering, 6-foot-5 figure with a shock of silver hair, McFarland arrived in Orange County in 1987 from Nevada, where he had been bishop of the Reno-Las Vegas Diocese.

McFarland established himself as a direct leader who helped the Diocese of Orange begin dealing with demographic changes from the large influx of Latino Catholics.

“He has taken a young diocese and he has developed a strong financial base for the next bishop,” real estate developer Art Birtcher told The Times in 1997, the year McFarland turned 75 and, following church policy, was required to submit a letter of resignation.

But “his biggest legacy” was “being a conservative teacher of the Catholic faith,” Birtcher said.

Under McFarland’s leadership, Catholic Charities of Orange County became a multimillion-dollar operation, the diocese said.

When McFarland arrived in Orange County, the diocese was little more than a decade old, having split off from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 1976.

Years after he retired in 1998, McFarland avoided addressing admitted sexual abuse by a Placentia priest who had been placed on administrative leave.

According to a 2005 Orange County Register article, McFarland said in handwritten notes that if asked about the departure, he would say it was not proper to discuss personnel matters and expected the pastor to do the same. The diocese later settled a claim that named the priest.

In another incident, McFarland had been told by a psychologist in 1996 that a cleric who admitted to repeatedly molesting a boy should be restricted to an adults-only ministry, The Times reported in 2005. Instead, church officials allowed him to spend six more years as pastor of an Orange County church. In 2002, the priest was removed from the ministry.

Norman Francis McFarland was born Feb. 21, 1922, in Martinez, Calif., the eldest of three sons of a railroad worker and his devout wife.

In the Bay Area, McFarland studied at St. Joseph’s College in Mountain View and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1943 at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park.

Two years after he was ordained as a priest of the Archdiocese of San Francisco in 1946, McFarland enrolled at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and earned a doctorate in canon law.

Returning to San Francisco, he worked in administration. In 1970, he was ordained an auxiliary bishop and became pastor of the city’s historic Mission Dolores.

In 1974, he was sent to what became the Reno-Las Vegas Diocese as an administrator.

He was credited with rescuing the diocese from a $5.7-million debt and near bankruptcy.

Two years later, he became its bishop. While in Nevada, he taught himself to speak Spanish by listening to tapes in his car.

His nicknames included “Big Mac,” a nod to his height and truth-and-order authority; “Absolute Norm,” for being a bluntly opinionated Vatican loyalist; and “Stormin’ Norman,” which reflected his take-charge attitude, The Times reported in 1988.

A vigil service will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday at Holy Family Cathedral, 566 S. Glassell St., Orange.

A Mass will be celebrated at 11 a.m. Friday at the cathedral.

McFarland has no immediate survivors.