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North Dakota's Historian-Priest

Omdahl, Lloyd. "North Dakota's Historian-Priest." Grand Forks Herald, 12 December 2005, sec. 7A.

Rev. William C. Sherman is co-editor of the book, Plains Folk: North Dakota's Ethnic History (library.ndsu.edu/grhc/order/nd_sd/sherman.html).


North Dakota probably is the most unresearched, unpublished-about state in the Union. Shelves labeled "local" in North Dakota bookstores are filled out with books from Minnesota, South Dakota and Montana. While we do have some general interest books, there is a dearth of published research.

But don't blame the Rev. William Sherman, who was honored by the North Dakota State Historical Society in November with its Heritage Profile Honor Award. Several decades of research on the ethnic history of North Dakota have earned him the reputation of the state's foremost expert on ethnic groups.

It is true that others have "post-holed" certain groups - for example, Robert P. Wilkins, people of the British Isles; Warren Henke, the Germans; Timothy Kloberdanz, the Eastern Europeans; P. V. Thorson, the Scandinavians, and Theodore Pedeliski, the Slavic peoples. Together with Sherman, they produced the seminal study of North Dakota ethnic groups published in 1988 as "Plains Folk: North Dakota's Ethnic History" by the Institute for Regional Studies at North Dakota State University.

Sherman not only has expanded his knowledge in these areas, but also has taken up studies of Asians, Italians, Armenians, Lebanese, Greeks, Syrians, Hollanders, French, Belgians, African-Americans, Jews, Spaniards and Mexicans in North Dakota. He also has profiled the nature of railroad people, colonies, businessmen and larger cities as they related to ethnic settlement and leadership.

He recently published "African-Americans in North Dakota" and "The Syrian-Lebanese in North Dakota" and is now working on two more major projects. He wants to do an early history of the Japanese and Chinese in the state and, at age 79, a long-term project - a collection on German-Russian houses in North Dakota.

Thus far, he has 15,000 photos of houses - 10,000 found in the United States and another 5,000 from European sources.

Between publications, Sherman has slipped in a number of other works. He wrote "Scattered Steeples," a history of the Fargo Catholic Diocese, and a brief biography of Valerian Paczek, a Polish priest who distinguished himself in the World War II Warsaw uprising before coming to serve parishes in eastern North Dakota.

To collect accounts from second- and third-generation North Dakotans, Sherman crossed ethnic barriers by joining German-Russian organizations, a Ukrainian club, the Red River Danes, Sons of Norway and the Lake Agassiz Swedes. (He claims to have met the Scandinavian blood requirements for these clubs by chewing "snoose" for 20 years.) He also subscribes to a Polish newspaper.

Not bad for a self-proclaimed Irishman!

As for priestly duties, Father Sherman has served North Dakota parishes in Verona, Enderlin, the NDSU Newman Center and St. Michael's Church in Grand Forks. All the while, he was teaching sociology at NDSU in Fargo. That is why he now lives between his two loves - secluded with his research in Hillsboro, where few residents are aware of his presence.

In his studies, he has not overlooked the people who came to North Dakota and left. Many of the Danes, Finns and Swedes left because they couldn't handle wide-open spaces that lacked visual highlights, to use Sherman's terminology.

The Germans from Russia stayed because North Dakota was not too unlike the Ukraine. Besides, they couldn't go back. For Norwegians - most of whom stayed - being scattered across the plains was somewhat like the dispersal along the fjords. They needed space and found it in North Dakota.

A wide variety of ethnics came just to get title to 160 acres of free land under the Homestead Act. As soon as they secured their claim, as many as 60 per cent left, selling the land at a profit.

Out of his studies of the ethnic groups and their behavior, Sherman has scoped the "personality of North Dakota," which he shares across the state through speeches and presentations to ethnic groups, churches and organizations. His dossier of historical work must have made his bishops wonder more than once whether they had a priest who was also a historian or an historian who was also a priest.

At any rate, North Dakota benefits greatly from his diligent collection and publication of information about the people who founded the state.

Reprinted with permission of the Grand Forks Herald.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller
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