The Amazing And Inspiring Story of the Quadriplegic Priest
This is an amazing story.
Bill Atkinson was an exceptional athlete and ruggedly handsome young man from the Philadelphia area. He attended Catholic schools throughout his life in the 1960's including Monsignor Bonner High School.
The Atkinson family was a wonderfully faithful Catholic family. In fact, the New York Jets nearly didn't draft his older brother, Al, as a linebacker because they feared he would become a priest. He didn't. Bill did.
Bill attended a pre-seminary program in upstate New York where one winter morning he was terribly injured when a toboggan he was riding down a hill along with three friends crashed into a tree. His friends weren't sure he would survive being carried to the station wagon in near blizzard conditions. They weren't sure if he would survive the 45 minute drive to a nearby hospital. Doctors weren't sure he would wake at all. His family, especially his mother, prayed constantly at his bedside. She kept vigil next to him and when he would stop breathing, she would whisper fervently in his ear "Breathe Bill, you have to breathe." She prayed her utterances would help give him the will to live. But for days there was no movement.
His fever reportedly rose to 108 degrees and doctors opened the windows to the brutally cold winter outside in an effort to lower his temperature. Doctors did all they could. Friends and family prayed. And then he woke.
He learned he was paralyzed. His spine had essentially shattered. Every day was difficult. So difficult. His weight dropped from an athletic 190 to less than 90 pounds.
Eventually, he was transferred closer to his home in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania where he had a bone from his hip fused to his neck so that he could raise his head. But that didn't come easy. It was an exhausting workout just to raise his head or nod. But he did. Every day. And his mother was there the first time he shrugged his shoulders. That was a big day. Because he could use an electric wheelchair and hold a pencil in his mouth to use a typewriter. It was especially important to him because he knew then that he could continue his studies in order to become a priest.
"While I was in the hospital, my only concern was where the accident would take me," reportedly said Fr. Atkinson in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer years later. But his dream of becoming a priest wouldn't leave him. He wondered, however, who would want a quadriplegic seminarian. And what use would the world have of a quadriplegic priest?
The Augustinians did.
"The Augustinians said if I wanted to continue (in the seminary), they would welcome me," he reportedly said. After over a year in the hospital, in the fall of 1966, Bill Atkinson began studying for the priesthood at Villanova University, where the Augustinians arranged for all of his classes to be held on one floor in a building that had a wheelchair ramp. Furthermore, he was allowed to continue with his seminary studies at Villanova where his needs could be accommodated. His friends there helped him every day to get dressed and in and out of his chair. But many concerns still existed about whether he could become a priest, such as his ability to celebrate Mass.
"You need the use of your hands to perform certain rituals, such as holding up the host during Mass," he reportedly said, "so the Augustinians said they would write to Rome and request special permission for me to be ordained to the priesthood." And then in 1973, he received a telegram from Pope Paul VI allowing him to enter into the priesthood.
On February 2, 1974, and with much of his family in attendance, he was ordained by Cardinal Krol of Philadelphia in St. Alice's Church in his hometown, where he had been baptized 28 years before. Sadly, his mother, who had kept vigil by his bedside and been so instrumental in his recovery, passed away just months before his ordination. He celebrated his first Mass with the help of a deacon the following day at the university that had done so much for him. He was reportedly the first quadriplegic seminarian to be ordained a priest. "The important thing is that I did not do it by myself," he always insisted. "People helped me all along." He wrote a poem many years later about the strength he received from others:
“How’d you do it?” People would say So confining, day after day Having others around for constant care Ever wonder if life’s unfair?
“How’d you do it?” People would ask Is it better now than in the past? To see others do what you did before Realizing, you can’t do them anymore
“How’d you do it?” People have said Needing help in-n-out of bed Doubts at times? Patience wearing thin? Ever wonder how it will end?
How’d you do it? Day after day This path taken wasn’t my way The choice was Another’s, not my own He sent me help. Couldn’t do it alone
How’d I do it? Let me confide Always with others right at my side Family and friends from the start Gave me love in no small part
How’d I do it? Day after day Would not have it, any other way They shared triumphs and setbacks too Been blest, when I look back in review
How’d I do it? Let me reply On those who help me, I totally relied They taught me to live, not just to cope With their love they gave me hope
How’d I do it? Day after day Help of others along the way Valued friends, sisters and brothers I simply borrowed – the strength of others
But Fr. Atkinson didn't just rely on others. He relied heavily on his faith. Upon receiving a national award for being an inspiration to so many from the Jaycees, he simply said, "We are not given a cross that is too heavy for us."
Shortly after becoming a priest, Fr. Atkinson began teaching at his alma mater Monsignor Bonner High School, where he taught theology for over three decades. In one story featuring Fr. Atkinson he had a student write on the blackboard "Miracles don't just tell us something has happened. They also point us in a direction."
The life of Fr. Atkinson points us in that same direction. He wrote another poem shortly before his death which said:
My life as is; is not my own It belongs to Him, it’s just a loan
Over the year, what did I learn? Life is a gift, I did discern
Another thing learned, I’m not alone And some day now, He’ll call me home
In life and death His presence near No room for doubt and less for fear
And when He calls, with hope I pray He’s been with me along the way,
Beyond death’s door, for me He waits With a smile and a long embrace
Father Bill passed away on September 15, 2006. He reportedly said one of his main ambitions at the school he taught was to be a "good influence" on his students. His example inspired countless young students and continues to this day with a scholarship in his name for students who display "courage, integrity, sensitivity, patience and spirit."
In these times when imperfections, illnesses, and disabilities can be death sentences, the example of Fr. Atkinson should make us think. And pray. Pray that we remember that the crosses we are given are not too heavy. And when we carry our cross we carry it towards Christ.