Maryknoll priest gave his life to help the poor in Guatemala

March 10, 2020

BELLAIRE — “It’s too hot, the grass is too tall, you cheated me and I quit!” 

As ironic as it may seem, these words marked the beginning of a vocation for a young Houstonian as a Maryknoll missionary priest. 

In the late 1940s, the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers bought a house in Rice Village to be used as a center to encourage foreign mission vocations and raise funds to support their work around the world. The house had been vacant for some time and the tall grass needed to be cut. 

The local priest hired William “Bill” Woods and his brother Jim to cut the grass at an agreed upon a price.

Bill was an aggressive teenager, somewhat impatient and quick to voice his opinion. Jim was using an electric lawnmower, and Bill strongly advised his brother not to run over the cord. Well, it wasn’t long before Jim cut the cord and Bill was not happy because he was the family electrician and was the one who had to repair the cord. 

He gave his brother a piece of his mind, but it wasn’t long before the cord was cut again and Bill had his fill of mowing grass.

That’s when the St. Thomas High School student pounded on the front door, told the priest he cheated them and said he quit. The priest explained that he didn’t intend to cheat the boys, but Bill would have nothing of it. 

As he stalked away, the priest asked him if he had ever thought of being a priest. Bill glared back over his shoulder and kept walking. The next day, however, he came back to the house, knocked on the same door and asked the priest if he was serious about him becoming a priest. 

Bill entered the seminary along with his longtime friend, Ralph Davila. He began his studies for the priesthood at Glen Ellyn, and both he and Davila were ordained June 14, 1958. 

He became a member of MaryKnoll Mission’s Central American Region, and was assigned to work with the indigenous natives in Guatemala. 

During his time there, Father Woods worked on several projects. For 10 years, he worked on a colonization project aimed at obtaining land for the otherwise landless poor of the mountains of Huehuetenango. 

The jungle project involved resettling several thousand families, introducing community development techniques and training local leaders for the people involved.

In the 1970s, the Church in Guatemala was being severely persecuted, and for their safety, all priests and religious were ordered to leave the country. Father Bill came back home. But while walking on Galveston beach, he concluded that he could not abandon his people in Guatemala. He said, “I love Guatemala… it would break my heart to have to leave the country. My only interest is to help make the people better Christians… better Guatemalans.”

His parish was in the mountains of northern Guatemala, in the middle of the heaviest governmental persecution of Catholics. Father Bill had learned how to fly and organized a group of pilots to bring in food and supplies to help the locals survive the onslaughts by the military. He contributed air transport of the elderly, sick and those otherwise incapable of traveling overland to the jungle project. 

Father Woods also worked on a housing project on the outskirts of Guatemala City, designed to alleviate the housing shortage brought about by a disastrous 7.4-magnitude earthquake that took place on Feb. 4, 1976. The epicenter was on the Motagua Fault, almost 100 miles northeast of Guatemala City.

During one of his trips, on Nov. 20, 1976, Father Bill was shot down in his small plane near Quiche, Guatemala. He died at the age of 45. Four American civilian passengers were also killed.

He was buried in his parish in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, three days later. A memorial Mass was also celebrated in his home parish, Holy Ghost Catholic Church, in Bellaire.

He continues to be venerated as a saint by the people he served. 

When his mother was told about his death, she said, “He died just as he lived, working with his people.”