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Father William Sherman continues to research in his beloved North Dakota

By Catherine Jelsing

Printed with the permission of the Office of Publications, North Dakota State University, Fargo

— This article was first published in the NDSU College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences spring 2006 alumni newsletter


Achingly flat. Climatically extreme. Bereft of even one “little” Chicago. From his first visit, William Sherman found himself wondering why people would choose to live in North Dakota. Were they — like he — captivated by the big sky? Were they — like he — drawn by the warmth of the people?

In November, Sherman’s insatiable curiosity about North Dakota’s ethnic and sociological history — evidenced in a plethora of publications — earned him the State Historical Society’s Heritage Profile Award. His name is on two of what are considered the best references on ethnic settlement in the state. He wrote “Prairie Mosaic: An Ethnic Atlas of Rural North Dakota” and co-edited “Plains Folk: North Dakota’s Ethnic History.” His more recent collaborations include “African-Americans in North Dakota” and “Prairie Peddlers: The Syrian-Lebanese in North Dakota.” 

But this state award is no capstone honor. As long as there are ethnic roots to expose in North Dakota, Sherman will keep digging. At almost 80 years old, the retired priest and NDSU professor emeritus is still researching, writing and connecting with people. His kitchen table in Hillsboro, N.D., is full of projects, including two new books. One is an early history of the Japanese and Chinese in North Dakota. The second is a long-term project on Germans from Russia houses.

Paradoxically, Sherman’s own genealogic trail remains a mystery. Born in Detroit in 1927, Sherman’s mother was Irish and his father was English. “They say ‘Sherman’ goes back to the pilgrims,” he said, “but everyone in the family has been too lazy to look it up.”

Sherman’s parents moved from Michigan, to Oregon, to North Carolina, and then to North Dakota, where Sherman’s father left the family for a time to serve in World War II. “That’s when I got to like the wide open spaces,” Sherman said.

The war was nearly over when Sherman graduated from high school, but he enlisted in the Army and served in Japan. The GI bill financed four years at St. John’s University, Collegeville, where Sherman studied philosophy and social science and completed his seminary training.

Ordained as a priest in 1955, Sherman spent nearly eight years at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Fargo and then enrolled in graduate school at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks. He earned his master’s in sociology, taught religion and served in the Newman Center there. He later served the Newman Center in Fargo, where he received an invitation to teach at NDSU.

“It was in the happy days when everyone wanted to change the world and sociology was loaded with students,” Sherman said. So he agreed to teach and he kept it up for 25 years, even after moving to Grand Forks to become pastor of St. Michael’s Church. “I’d commute and teach night classes,” he said. “I loved the students and I loved the feedback from them.” Evening classes were among his favorites, because older-than-average students often took them. “When I was talking they would either nod their heads or shake their heads at what I was saying,” Sherman said. “It kept me current with what was going on and gave me a good feel for the state.”

Even before he wrote his master’s thesis on Germans from Russia, Sherman had a special interest in North Dakota’s second largest ethnic group (Norwegians are first). Some of his decades-long research is now culminating in a book about Germans from Russia adobe homes.

“For about 10 years at NDSU, I’d get the architecture and the history students together and we’d saturate the state studying the housing Germans from Russia built out here,” Sherman said. “They didn’t build sod houses. They didn’t build claim sheds. They built houses out of adobe, just like they did back in the Black Sea area near Odessa (Ukraine).”

Currently Sherman is sifting through thousands of photographs taken of houses in North Dakota and Russia. “We could get a picture book out right now, but I have to write the history,” he said.

The “we” in the project is John Guerrero, a USA wrestling tournament director and retired Marine. Guerrero traveled with Sherman to 50 different villages in southern Ukraine where they took 5,000 photographs of adobe homes. Guerrero also is one of Sherman’s primary researchers. “He’s up to his ears right now in the Chinese and Japanese thing,” Sherman said.

Guerrero isn’t the only one who has scoured newspapers, land office records, cemetery ledgers, immigration records and census data on Sherman’s behalf. “I have former students of mine, who are now middle-aged guys, who love looking through old newspapers and census records. So, when they help me out, I put their names on the books,” Sherman said. Indeed, Thomas Newgard’s name comes before Sherman’s and Guerrero is credited for compiling the census information on the African-American book.

Plains Folk: North Dakota's Ethnic History, published in 1986, remains the work of which Sherman is most proud. As co-editor with Playford Thorson, Sherman wrote the opening overview and saved the section on “special groups” for himself. Several of those groups — Chinese, Syrians, French, Gypsies, African-Americans, Jews — have become subjects of Sherman’s later books or articles.

“I’ve been interested in the smaller groups, in part because they don’t get any headlines. I wondered how they existed out here and I was interested, sociologically, in the existence of prejudice and discrimination,” Sherman said. What he discovered, for the most part, was a high degree of tolerance for differences. “Everyone was an immigrant, so if someone had dark skin or slanted eyes, they didn’t pay much attention to it,” Sherman said. 

Despite his vocation, Sherman’s religious beliefs haven’t found their way into his writing often, the exception being Scattered Steeples a history of the Fargo Diocese, which he’s in the process of updating. Conversely, Sherman thinks his training as a sociologist has made him a better pastor.

“At St. Michael’s in Grand Forks, I had close to 5,000 parishioners. Of course I had a couple of priests with me, but when you’re a pastor in a big place like that, there’s a lot of politics and you have to keep everyone happy and keep them all pointed in the right direction,” he said. “Sociology helped me deal with people and issues.”

These days, Father Sherman is happy to be living in the little town of Hillsboro, where it’s a half-hour commute on I-29 to his files in Fargo or Grand Forks. He’s not much involved in local doings, but years of travel and research have bound him to people all over the state. He’s a member of numerous ethnic clubs including the Sons of Norway, a couple of Germans from Russia “outfits,” The Red River Danes, the Northwestern Minnesota Swedes and a Ukrainian group in Dickinson. He likes getting their newsletters.

“It’s an easy life,” Sherman once said, “all you have to do is be a nice guy, say your prayers and be good to your people.” In Sherman’s case, “people” is everyone — especially North Dakotans.

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