For Father Keith Woods, Southern Maryland is more than just home. It is where his mother’s family planted their roots in 1650, where he grew up in the community at St. John Francis Regis Parish in Hollywood, graduated from St. Mary’s Ryken High School in Leonardtown, and where today he ministers as pastor of St. Peter’s Parish in Waldorf.

“I’m a St. Mary’s County boy, born and raised,” he said proudly.

Father Woods, who celebrated the 25th anniversary of his ordination as a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington earlier this year, expressed gratitude for being able to serve the community that contributed to his vocation to the priesthood.

“I’m most grateful that, coming from Southern Maryland, I have spent the majority of my priesthood in Southern Maryland,” he said. “I remember telling Cardinal Wuerl one time that if Paul knew he was supposed to go to the Gentiles, I knew I belonged in Southern Maryland. I always wanted to give back to the people that formed my vocation.”

After his ordination to the priesthood in 1995, he first served in Southern Maryland as a parochial vicar at Sacred Heart in La Plata in Charles County until 1999. He later returned to St. Mary’s County to serve as pastor of St. Joseph in Morganza from 2005-16, when he was assigned as pastor of St. Peter’s in Waldorf, another Charles County parish.

“I was always conscious of who I came from and where I came from. And yet because this area has grown so much, I wanted to take the best of our tradition and our Catholic experience and share that with newcomers,” the priest said.

In between those parish assignments in Southern Maryland, Father Woods served over the years as a parochial vicar at St. Peter’s in Olney, Annunciation and St. Ann’s in Washington, and as a chaplain at American University.

Father Keith Woods (Archdiocese of Washington photo)

From a very young age, Father Woods said he knew he was going to be a priest someday.

“I can’t remember a daytime in my life when I didn’t want to be a priest,” Father Woods said. “It’s recorded in my baby book; it’s what I wanted to play when I was a child. There was just something that I knew that whatever the priest was doing at the altar, that’s what I wanted to do.”

The example of Msgr. Martin Harris, the pastor at St. John Francis Regis Parish from 1970 to 2004, heavily influenced his calling to be a priest, he said.

“I just revered him (Msgr. Harris) and there’s not a day that goes by in my priesthood that I’m not living out something that he taught me, or following his example, or even learning from things that I didn’t want to imitate,” Father Woods said.

Having been a priest for the past 25 years, Father Woods said the joy that comes with the priesthood only continues to grow.

“You prepare for the priesthood and you think that the most exciting day of your life, the best day of your life, is the day of your ordination, and it is,” he said. “But then the next day is even better, and the next day is even better, and the next day is even better. So 25 years later, it just gets better and better. Easier? No, absolutely not. But anything worth having is not easy.”

This year, as Father Woods has served his community amid the challenges of the coronavirus outbreak and shutdown, he said that wanting to be a good example for others has helped him carry out his ministry.

“I tried to keep, to the best of my ability, a clear and level head, a sense of serenity of the whole thing,” he said. “We’ve all had to roll with the punches of suspending Masses and online Masses and how to reach out to people who are not coming here, but you don’t want them to feel disconnected from the parish.”

But trust and faith in God’s plan, he said, keeps him calm, which in turn helps keep others calm as well.

“Everything is going to be fine,” Father Woods said. “The Church is 2,000 years old, we’ve handled worse than this.”

Much of Father Woods’ family is still in the Southern Maryland area, so sharing his priesthood with his family is a big blessing.

“Anything I accomplish in life is a reflection on them,” he said. “I feel that even though I’m a grown up, I still want to make my family proud. I want my parish to be proud of their priest. So being able to share these joys and sorrows with them has kept me balanced and has really been a great joy. So many things change in life, but if you’ve got a supportive family and you can share that priesthood with them and let them know how much they contribute to that, is a great thing.”

In a special way, Father Woods has dedicated much of his time to the formation of seminarians, both on various vocations teams throughout the Archdiocese of Washington in the 1990s, and also just in opening up his parish to seminarians. In March, when seminaries shut down due to the coronavirus, three seminarians spent their time at St. Peter’s until the end of the school year and another seminarian spent his summer at the parish.

“To be able to sit down and talk about the priesthood, talk about stories, how they’re going to do things in the future… There is no better way to spend your time than doing that,” Father Woods said. “It is so much fun.”

As Father Woods looks forward to his next 25 years as a priest, he said he hopes to continue the things that have formed him throughout his entire life – Mass, the sacraments, teaching and caring for people.

“If the next 25 years is anything like the last 25 years, the road ahead is only going to get rockier and rockier for the Church,” he said, adding that the faithful can do nothing but keep their “good, steady, and faithful apostolic witness in the world.”

And as the pastor of a vibrant community, he recognizes his responsibility to lead the people whom he is serving.

“I would like to be the one who continues to radiate some kind of joy and serenity,” he said.

Some days, Father Woods said, he can’t even believe he has the joy of being a Catholic priest.

“How many people actually get to grow up to be everything they wanted to be? I reflect on that all the time,” he said. “To love being a priest and never let that go away, I can only be very grateful and very humbled by the whole thing.”