Thomas Woodhouse had a plan for his life. He served in the Marines for four years, and after graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, he got a job as a pilot for Raytheon. He moved far from his family in New England to Dallas, Texas, and later to Tucson, Ariz. He liked his house, and hoped to get married someday.
Wearing his priest’s collar, still an unfamiliar sensation for the 51-year-old, those material desires felt far away.
Woodhouse was ordained a priest recently by the Most Rev. Thomas Tobin, Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence.
“The more I get involved in the preaching and being on the altar, the more I love it,” he said.
Still, Woodhouse’s path to the church was not without its twists and turns.
A native of Connecticut, his family now lives in Rhode Island. When he was living in Dallas, several people approached him and asked if he had ever considered the priesthood. He tested the waters at a vocation weekend seminar at the University of Dallas but wasn’t convinced.
“I kept ignoring it because I liked my job,” he said.
In Tucson, though, the idea kept popping up.
“I figured I can leave all this behind, but it followed me,” he said. “I pursued it half-heartedly in Tucson. I wasn’t that enthusiastic about it, but at the same time, it wouldn’t go away.”
In the summer of 2009, while visiting his mother, he went to church at St. Paul’s in Cranston. The deacon there, on his way to becoming a priest, had the same thought as many others before – that Woodhouse would be a good clerical candidate.
Woodhouse decided to test the theory. He put his house on the market, and it sold within a week. At that point, there was no more denying it.
“After a lot of prayer and contemplation, I said I’ve got to do it. That’s the first time I started to get really excited about it,” he said.
Woodhouse enrolled at Blessed John XXIII National Seminary in Westin, Mass. He was going from his own home to a dorm room, and a life of independence to a life of service. In his first few weeks, the priests there urged the students to give it one solid year before making any decisions.
It turned out Woodhouse didn’t need a year.
“I went in there not knowing, and expecting the worst. I had been out of the academic environment for 30 years, but it didn’t take long for all those worries and concerns to go away,” he said. “The transition was a lot smoother than I thought it was going to be. It ended up being a great experience.”
Back home, it appeared that no one was particularly surprised with the decision, including his family. Woodhouse’s mother told stories of her son playing make believe as a priest as a child, his four siblings stood behind him, and even his friends from college were supportive of the decision.
“I found a wife, and it’s the church,” Woodhouse said.
The seminary is a four-year commitment, and in his third year, Woodhouse got to experience what a vocation in the church might be like. He learned how to deliver a homily, and was ordained a deacon. At that point in his education, he was sent out into the community on weekends. He spent time at St. Joseph’s in Woonsocket, and two summers at St. Luke’s in Barrington. Every Sunday night, he would dread going back to the seminary, wishing instead that he could stay in the church.
“People in the church are very welcoming and very supportive,” he said.
And despite his nerves at delivering the homily himself, Woodhouse said that has become something he looks forward to now that the diocese has assigned him his own parish.
“I was very nervous about that, but God provides,” he said.
He starts at Saints John and Paul in Coventry on July 1. He planned to visit the current pastor there this week to get a feel for the parish so he can hit the ground running.
“My goal is to get to know the people and provide them with their spiritual needs, and just do what God wants me to do out there,” he said. “I like to try to give people hope, something concrete that they can store away that will get them through the week.”
Once he settles in, Woodhouse plans to become active in the community. He believes that the more visible the church is, the more likely it is that people will stop in and consider returning to the church. He hopes to offer a non-judgmental space for people to get to know one another and get to know God.
“I think a lot of churches are misunderstood these days,” he said. “Everybody’s got the same kind of concerns and that’s why they come to church. I think people want to belong.”
As he embarks on his new life as a priest, Woodhouse says all the hints along the way were God’s way of showing him his true calling.
“If you back off and do the best you can and leave the rest in God’s hands, it’s amazing what can happen,” he said.