Father Sherman: 'Be nice. Say your prayers.'
... The angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of joy that will be for all the people.
"For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord."
Luke 2: 10-11
GRAND FORKS — Today is Christmas Eve, and the Rev. William Sherman will begin this day much the same as the dozens of Christmas Eve days before it — with prayer and adoration.
Retired now for more than 14 years, the longtime and much-beloved priest of St. Michael's Catholic Church in Grand Forks says with certainty he does not miss the half-century of midnight Masses, his weekly homily homework or the long hours spent prayerfully listening to confessions. Yet, he's equally sure he has not tired of spreading the word of God. There is always time for that.
"I was there at St. Michael's for 27 years, and I was all pooped out when I left," Sherman says with a laugh. "But my friends bring me happiness. I have a lot of visitors. I have people who come up to this apartment of mine, and just talking to them about world affairs brings me comfort."
The priest who baptized, married and otherwise shared happy and sorrowful moments with thousands of people through the years no longer preaches to parishioners packed elbow to elbow in the pews, but friends still show up daily to hear him say Mass in his home.
Services begin at 4 o'clock sharp, and he and his brother, the Rev. Edward Sherman, take turns leading prayers in front of a small altar backed by dark wooden panels and a crucifix.
Shelter in storm
"I say prayers all the time," Sherman says.
Then, pointing with his finger: "In my head, I have a long list of people who've had troubles, so I pray for them. People sometimes need somebody, and I just happened to be the person they needed."
So, too, he was that person in the days of the 1997 flood. Whether in church or praying the rosary atop neighborhood dikes, the no-nonsense priest described at times as both gruff and affable was the steady rock others leaned on.
And 40 years before that, as a young priest of only two years, Sherman in 1957 was the sole clergyman on duty at the Fargo hospital in the wake of a catastrophic tornado. A small saucer, holy water and gauze in hand, Sherman walked the halls to baptize and give last rites to the many victims who lay injured or dying. Some survivors later would tell him he had turned them to God.
Call to faith
Sherman is 90 years old now, but good-natured as always, he will tell you to "quit rubbing it in."
Dressed comfortably in a plaid shirt and covered with a fleece Minnesota Twins blanket, he sits with his feet up in an easy chair as he says he thinks he's accomplished all he would like to accomplish here on Earth.
"I am happy with what I've done in life," he says. "I was a soldier in the Army (during World War II). I worked in the Minnesota packing houses. I worked on farms in my younger years."
Then, there was that surprise 48-year stint as an active minister of the faith. Sherman says his family was not religious, and he never intended to be a priest.
"You're going to have to ask the good Lord how that happened," he said about his decision to choose a religious vocation. Along with his ordained brother, his sister was a nun.
Sherman says the priesthood idea somehow rubbed off on him while attending St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., on the G.I. Bill.
"Most of the professors there tended to be priests or monks, so I started thinking of that priesthood business," he said. "I didn't like the idea (at first) because once you become a priest, you have to say goodbye to the girlfriends."
Eventually, the priesthood idea won out over the girls, and he attended four more years of seminary before he was ordained in 1955. At the bishop's request, he continued studies in rural sociology at UND. He earned a master's degree in 1965 and went on to teach and write several books on ethnic history in North Dakota.
Still an avid reader and 24-hour news hound, Sherman is well aware of today's constant political jousting, global unrest and ugly hate crimes.
But as he takes a quick pinch of Copenhagen long-cut tobacco, he contemplates the state of the world.
"First of all, things are not so bad nowadays. Things could be worse, and they have been worse," he says. "There could be wars. My gads, we had wars going on in Asia and Europe. Things are pretty darn good today. It's really peaceful other than a lot of nutty people going around shooting people."
Despite the world's rough spots, Sherman sees plenty of love and hope. And Christmastime is the perfect time to slow down and reflect on all that is good.
"People need to think a little bit about it and remember Christmas is not just a family gathering. It gives a person meaning to their life," he says. "It's such a confusing world and having a good religion
gives them that meaning. Not only a meaning of life here but a meaning of life in the next world."
So, with today's joyful songs and all year long, Sherman has this advice to share: "Be a nice person, say your prayers and go to church. When you die you want to be sure you go to the right place."