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Father Sherman, a 'well-loved priest,' remembered for his important research on ethnic groups in North Dakota

Beloved priest was known for his sense of humor, straight talk and "folksy approach" to celebrating anniversary, wedding and funeral ceremonies

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William Sherman
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GRAND FORKS – Father William Sherman, well-known and beloved parish priest who led St. Michael’s Catholic Church for 27 years, died Wednesday afternoon, May 4, at Valley Living Center. He was 94.

Father Ray Courtright, pastor of St. Michael’s Church, said Sherman “was such a great gift to me, because he was a great priest — so positive, such a great sense of humor. He exuded a peace and a joy that was very calming.”

Sherman, a priest for 48 years, spoke to people “like a quintessential grandfather, very hopeful; he built people up,” Courtright said. He was a great storyteller who spoke “with such confidence, joy, peace and a great faith in God” that even though, at times when things seemed to be crumbling, people were encouraged.

“He said the Lord gave us the template on how to live, and he lived it. It permeated his being, his personality — he was so uplifting,” he said. “He was so honest, he would give us the straight story.”

Sherman would remind parishioners that “the Lord is going to take care of things; the Lord is with us,” Courtright said. “It was a gift. He was a person apart. A well-loved priest.”

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Others, too, remembered the priest who had such a powerful impact on the clergy — as well as parishioners — in this region.

Father Jason Lefor, of St. John’s Nepomucene Catholic Church in Pisek, North Dakota, is a former associate of Sherman.

“Many of the priests in this (Fargo) diocese were trained by him,” Lefor said. “Here in Grand Forks, he was the father of the whole city, spiritually speaking.”

An North Dakota State alumnus, Lefor also remembers taking sociology courses taught by Sherman and the research he conducted concerning people with various ethnic backgrounds and where they settled in North Dakota. Sherman wrote several books on this subject.

“He was larger than life,” Lefor said. “You can go to any town or village (in the state) and get stories about him.”

“He was so colorful, so full of life. There was nothing boring about him,” he said. “He always left an impression upon you, and you never forgot what he said.”

Father Phillip Ackerman, of Holy Cross Catholic Church, West Fargo, served as an associate pastor with Sherman from 1980 to 1984 at St. Michael’s Church.

“I’ve always enjoyed his very folksy approach to celebrating weddings, anniversaries and funerals,” Ackerman said. "He had an informal and very personable way of celebrating them. I learned from that.”

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Ackerman also credited Sherman, as an NDSU sociology teacher, for his extraordinary research on “the people of North Dakota and their ethnicity." Sherman wrote books detailing his findings.

“He made people so proud of their ethnicity, from the Native Americans to those of European descent to those from Africa,” he said. “He was a master at that.”

Sherman was especially concerned about the person who was “down and out, the common person,” and would support people in need “sometimes from his own pocket,” Ackerman said.

“He would focus on the dignity of all people, especially the common person who might otherwise not be recognized.”

Sherman “spoke his mind,” Ackerman said, and, because of his great relationship with the press, journalists would contact him for his perspectives on issues of the day.

“He liked a good argument and a good discussion.”

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Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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