|Father Bill Woods, martyr of the Ixcan, Guatemala
Bill Woods was born in Houston, TX on September 14, 1931. Son of William Harvey Woods and Ana Charnley, he attended St. Thomas High School. He entered Maryknoll’s college at Glen Ellyn, IL in 1949 to study for the missionary priesthood. On June 14, 1958, Bill was ordained to the priesthood at Maryknoll, NY. After ordination, Bill was assigned to work in Barillas, a town in the western part of Guatemala, near the sparsely populated Ixcan and Quiche jungle regions.
Bill came to Guatemala with a mixture of optimism, religious faith, skill, generosity, and naiveté. According to Bishop John McCarthy, a close personal friend, “Bill was a Texas cowboy for Jesus, ready to enjoy the open spaces of Guatemala, to ride horses, jeeps, airplanes, and motorcycles, and to teach the Indians about the Catholic faith”. While in Barillas, Bill opened a wood-carving cooperative for 25 poor Indian families and a clinic where he often served his parishioners as their doctor for minor ailments and even when necessary, for more serious problems. He would suture a badly bleeding machete cut, and even extract teeth. But Bill knew that his hard work touched only a small minority of the poverty-stricken Mayan Indians. For more meaningful reform, the Indians needed their own land and plenty of it. It was at that time that the Guatemalan government began a program allowing poor peasants to settle in the hospitable Ixcan, a jungle near Barillas.
This gave Bill a new idea: develop a colonization program in the Ixcan, serviced by small airplanes, whereby Indians would be flown into the inaccessible jungle where they could carve out farms for themselves. Bill would then fly out their produce so it could be sold in local markets.
In 1965 Bill learned to fly and purchased 100 square miles of land between theIxcan and Xalbal rivers for his colonization project. He invited a lawyer to help with the land titles and distributed to the Indians an individual, equal-sized plot of land. However, all titles were to be registered in the name of the cooperative. This would make it impossible for the rich to buy them out individually once the land was totally developed.
By 1975, Bill had three Cessna 185s service five cooperatives. He and his pilot associates had flown over 12,000 trips to and from the Ixcan. Approximately 2000 families had been settled in the jungle, forming five towns. Five schools were built and staffed with thirteen teachers. The project employed two full-time agronomists. Nurseries were set up and new plants introduced. Over 1000 head of cattle were owned and pastured by the five cooperatives. Each of the five cooperatives had its own clinic run by fifteen certified paramedics and two nurses. Fr. Bill was also interested in making the Indians better Christians. He encouraged each cooperative to build a small chapel and meeting hall which were pastured by Delegates of the Word who were trained in the Diocesan Catechetical Center in Huehuetenango. Indians were sold cheap radios at the cooperative store which were used for religious instruction. Religious comic books were printed and distributed. The project was so successful from a religious and material point of view that other missionaries talked of using it as a model for similar structures.
Due to the rise of the oil prices in the early 1970s, the Guatemalan government made ready to auction off drilling rights to the highest bidders. Generals, favored by the dictatorship and landowning elite, began a mad scramble to gobble up the jungle area that they had once considered worthless in order to monopolized the mineral and oil drilling rights. The cooperatives in the Ixcan were in danger. One day, an army unit arrived at the main cooperative of Bill Woods’ colonization project and ordered members of the cooperative to plant grass seed in the cleared areas and then move on. The embittered cooperative members, afraid for their lives returned to their highland communities. But Bill Woods took it upon himself to make their case known at a national level. It was at this time that the powerful perceived him as a troublemaker and warned him to back off and leave the project or else. They even cancelled his air service.
On November 20, 1976, on a cloudless day, Bill Woods invited Dr. Michael Okado, along with a US journalist, a lay missioner, and another passenger to join him on a flight to the Ixcan in order to visit the cooperative. Just after 11:00 in the morning, the plane crashed into the mountain that it had just crossed, near San Juan Cotzal in Quiche. All four passengers were killed. Within less than an hour the Guatemalan military appeared at the scene of this remote crash. By the time the official investigation began, the plane had been removed from the crash site. Key engine parts that normally would have been intact were reported missing by the investigative team. Not long after the accident, a Guatemalan army officer, under the influence of alcohol mentioned that some army colonels had planned the death of Bill Woods.
Father Bill Woods and lay missioner John Gauker were buried with honors in Huehuetenango. Thousands of Indians attended their funeral. Cesar Montes recalls the sad event well and said: “We feel like orphans without the Father”. The years after Bill’s death were painful for the Ixcan colonizers. A number of times Guatemalan soldiers entered the Ixcan cooperatives to burn, to torture, and massacre the indigenous population. Many had to flee to Mexico or hide in the jungle in order to escape the genocide perpetrated by the Guatemalan army.
When those who fled were finally repatriated in 1995 they returned to the Ixcan to often find that their original plots of land given to others by the army. Through the subsequent efforts of the Catholic Church most people have recovered their lands. Their gratitude and love for Father Bill Woods has never wavered. He will always be remembered. In May 2000, the people of the Ixcan requested that Bill’s body be brought to Mayalan, Ixan to rest among the Indian people he so much loved and served. Bill Woods will always be remembered in their folklore. After all, he is their martyr.
Copyright © 2012 Maryknoll Vocations. All Rights Reserved