Abraham Lincoln said that “A House divided against itself cannot stand”. Thomas Ewing Sherman was born into a House divided by religion on October 12, 1856. He was the son of William Tecumseh Sherman, at the time an obscure former officer, and Ellen Ewing Sherman. Ellen Sherman was a devout Catholic, and, I think, a saint. She constantly did good works and was a champion of the Church her entire life. Among her many activities was the foundation of the Catholic Indian Missionary Association, and a prominent role in the Golden Jubilee celebrations in the US of the reign of Pio Nono in 1877 for which she received the personal thanks of the Pope.
William Tecumseh Sherman attended mass with his family when he was at home prior to the Civil War, but ceased doing so during the war. He and Ellen had been raised together, Ellen’s father, Thomas Ewing, a Senator from Ohio, taking the orphan “Cump” Sherman into his home after the death of Sherman’s father, an Ohio Supreme Court justice, in 1829. The Ewings were devout Catholics, although Thomas would not be baptized into the Faith until just before his death after decades of attending mass, and “Cump” was baptized a Catholic while living with them. Sherman’s religious views are often described as agnostic but that is an oversimplification. I think he basically believed in God, but he was skeptical of organized religion and especially the Catholic Church. However, he had no objection to Ellen raising all of their children as Catholics, but over the years the religious tension between Sherman and his wife grew.
The Shermans had eight children. Thomas Sherman was probably his father’s favorite, being his eldest surviving son and blessed with a good mind. He attended Georgetown and graduated with a BA in 1874. He received a law degree from Washington University in 1878. His father assumed that Thomas would go far in this world and he was shocked when his son announced that he was going to become a Jesuit.
In a letter dated April 21, 1885 to Mrs. Mary Audenreid, the widow of his former chief of staff, and perhaps his mistress, he made his opposition to his son’s decision clear: “With Catholics the church is Greater than God himself and they will abandon Father & Mother if the Church Commands. I have read your letter carefully and now write to repeat my advice of this morning that you allow Florence [her 18-year-old daughter] rope. Let her play her own game.Tell her to take her own way and you choose yours. If she becomes a nun she can do no harm and is dead to the world. Natures God intended all women to be mothers but if all breed too fast, wars, pestilence and famine come to destroy the surplus. I confess that I feared Florence would err on the other side, but if she has been indoctrinated let her go her course – you keep up your house ready & willing to afford her at all times a safe refuge. I remember well my feelings when Tom [29-year-old son, Thomas Ewing Sherman, his eldest living son] left me, his sisters & all for the Church and my judgment remains the same that it was an awful crime against nature for I had a right to depend on him in my old age to look after those dependent on me. I hope Cump [18-year-old son, Philemon Tecumseh Sherman, his youngest child] will take his place but even in that I have not absolute confidence “
Nothing daunted by his father’s opposition Thomas went forward with his plans to become a priest. He explained his decision with these words: “People in love do strange things. Having a vocation is like being in love only more so, as there is no love so absorbing, so deep and so lasting as that of the creature for the Creator.”
He did his novitiate in London, England and Frederick, Maryland. He was ordained a priest in 1889. His mother died the year before and it is to be regretted that she did not live to see her eldest son become a priest in the Jesuit order. His father died on February 14, 1891 in New York. He was surrounded by his children who made certain he received the Last Rites of the Church. Thomas said his funeral mass.
Father Thomas Sherman was a much sought after speaker among the Jesuits, emphasizing love of God and love of country, and ardently opposing socialism, anarchism and anti-Catholicism. He was quite popular with Civil War veterans’ groups, and became very much a national figure. He taught at Jesuit colleges in Saint Louis and Detroit. During the Spanish American war he served as a chaplain in the Puerto Rican campaign. He fell in love with the land and the people and often spoke about his desire to be a missionary priest there, but such was not to be.
Father Sherman would be called a workaholic today, and after a little over two decades of strenuous activity in the priesthood, he suffered a nervous collapse in 1911. He became convinced in his disturbed state of mind that he had no hope for eternal salvation. He left the Jesuits, eventually living with his wealthy niece Eleanor Sherman Fitch shortly before his death in 1933. Just before his death he renewed his Jesuit vows.
He is buried in the Jesuit cemetery at Grand Coteau Louisiana, next to Father John Salter,SJ, grandnephew of Alexander Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederacy.