North Dakotans William Sherman: Preacher and Teacher
Hagerty, Marilyn. "Notable North Dakotans William Sherman: Preacher and Teacher." North Dakota Horizons, Winter 1997.
It's not so much who settled North Dakota as why they stayed that
interests the Rev. William Sherman.
The well-known professor and priest for more than three decades
has been researching, writing and speaking about Germans from Russia
and other ethnic groups of North Dakota.
Sherman says the time has come for the Germans from Russia to
shine. Early generations in North Dakota had a tendency to keep
a low profile, even though they are by far the largest ethnic population
in much of the state-easily outnumbering descendants of Norwegians.
Now two or three generations out, many Germans from Russia have
become affluent and are able to make nostalgic trips back to the
Ukraine. Many are compiling family histories.
In fact, two societies are flourishing-the Germans from Russia
Heritage Society has headquarters in Bismarck and the American Historical
Society of Germans from Russia has an office in Lincoln, Neb.
These societies publish monthly journals that help trace ancestries
and provide stories about the heritage of Germans from Russia. They
also sponsor trips back to Europe.
"Geographers," Sherman says, "always start with
who arrived and describe the traits and skills they brought with
them. In North Dakota, I have always noticed how four or five out
of six settlers left. So it's more significant to find out what
kind of people stayed."
He ventures the ones who couldn't cut it got out. Those who stayed,
he thinks, are the ones who were comfortable with the big skies,
the remoteness and the isolation.
"After all," he says, "that is the type of terrain
the Germans left behind in Russia. And that, to me is a clue to
the North Dakota personality."
Much of North Dakota is a patchwork of ethnic communities, Sherman
says. "There has not been as much dissemination here as in
other parts of the country."
In the course of his research, Sherman has grown familiar with
every nook and cranny of North Dakota. "I love this state,"
he says, as he talks of his current research on the type of houses
built here and how they compare with the ones the North Dakota settlers
left behind. He made a trip to the Ukraine last year with a fellow
researcher, John Guerrero, Fargo. He hopes to get back in the spring
of 1997 when the leaves are not yet on the trees and they can get
better photographs of houses he sees re-created in North Dakota.
These are houses that have stood for 120 years in the Ukraine, often
made of sturdy, dry clay brick.
This year, Sherman's book on "African Americans in North
Dakota" is being published. He wrote it with former students
Thomas Newgard and Guerrero. His "Prairie Mosaic" is an
ethnic atlas of North Dakota. In addition, Sherman is one of the
editors and contributors to "Plains Folk: North Dakota's Ethnic
History." During the centennial of North Dakota and the centennial
of the Fargo Diocese of the Catholic Church, Sherman collaborated
with Jerry Lamb and Jerry Ruff to write "Scattered Steeples."
Sherman teaches an upper division and graduate class in Northern
Plains sociology at North Dakota State University in Fargo. He commutes
to Fargo from Grand Forks where he is senior pastor of St. Michael's
Catholic Church-a church with 5,000 parishioners.
He has been "Father Sherman" to this flock since 1976.
Born in Detroit in 1927 of English-Irish-German background, he says
he didn't really define his heritage until he came to North Dakota.
"It's so important here," he says.
Sherman's brother, Edward Sherman, is a priest at St. Michael's
Catholic Church at Ft. Totten, N.D. His sister, Ann Sherman, is
a member of the Franciscan Sisters. They lived in North Carolina
and Oregon when they were growing up. Then when their father, a
federal employee, left for World War II, the family moved to Lidgerwood,
N.D., where his mother had relatives.
He is a graduate of St. John's University at Collegeville, Minn.,
and holds a bachelor's degree in sociology from NDSU and a master's
from the University of North Dakota.
Relaxed and low key, the priest is beloved in his parish. For
him, one research project spawns another. Right now, he and colleagues
are halfway through working on a book on Arabs in North Dakota.
They have gathered all of the material on an ethnic group that Sherman
says has enormous self-confidence and has left a stamp on North
Sherman works slowly, methodically with others on his research.
He is not driven by deadlines. "Grants will give you ulcers,"
he says. "If you have a valuable project, someone will recognize
it and support it."
The priest-professor doesn't own a television set. He reads mostly
regional journals and newspapers, especially the editorial pages.
And he confesses, "I do find time for an occasional mystery."
Mostly his thoughts are on writing and research. He thinks politicians
would do well in North Dakota to be aware of the ethnic backgrounds
in each community. "Their background shapes their thinking,"
"North Dakotans tend to be suspicious of big government.
And in this state, they still assume the politician is honest."
Reprinted with permission of North Dakota Horizons
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