Quadriplegic Priest Inspires as Canonization Cause Continues
Philadelphia Hopes to Welcome New Blessed
PHILADELPHIA — At last November’s annual fall meeting of the U.S. bishops, Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput asked for and received his brother bishops’ approbation that the late Augustinian Father Bill Atkinson (1946-2006) become his see’s next “Servant of God.”
Thus began the formal phase of the effort to beatify the man who would be Philadelphia’s third, and first native-born, male saint. If the measure of sainthood is perseverance and faith, Father Atkinson certainly meets that standard.
Currently, the cause is in the investigatory phase. Testimony must be gathered, witnesses interviewed and a biography written as part of the evidence the Augustinians will eventually present to the Vatican. However, because of the archbishop’s recent consent, Father Atkinson is now “Servant of God” Father Bill Atkinson.
In the area around New Hamburg, N.Y. — the site of the Augustinian Order’s novitiate — January 1965 had been cold and somewhat snowy. Relative to many eastern New York winters, however, February was fairly warm, with very little snow.
It certainly wasn’t a big snow day on Feb. 22, during which .16 of an inch of snow fell to the ground.
Maybe that piddling amount wailed a siren’s song to athletic 19-year-old seminarian Bill Atkinson, beckoning him to go tobogganing on such an inauspicious day for winter sports. The exact reason for the outing has been lost in the subsequent 50 years.
Down the hill he went, however. The ride ended not in exhilaration and exultations of “Let’s do it again!” — but with a crash into a tree.
The collision left him a quadriplegic, with limited movement of neck, head, arms and shoulders, and Atkinson spent the next year in rehabilitation.
It was quite a change for the young man. A graduate of the same Augustinian-run high school where he would later teach and even coach, Atkinson had been a standout athlete and had excelled in baseball. Now he could do absolutely nothing for himself, nor would he again. He had started on a long Via Crucis, and by all accounts, it was humbling. His favorite prayer became the “Serenity prayer.”
Friends say his condition never became the object of self-pity, however. Instead, he always worked very hard to fit in and never unduly drew attention to himself.
Augustinian Father Michael Di Gregorio, vice postulator of Father Atkinson’s cause, observed, “St. Augustine [taught] we should not all be treated alike because we all have different needs. And while true from one side, it is also true that we should not be looking for special treatment because of differences. So while the community tries to respect what is different about you, you as the individual try to not make yourself stand out from the others. So there’s a real balance that seeks to appreciate diversity, but also looks for unity in common goals, in effort, in ideals, and this was certainly exemplified in Father Bill.”
Despite his reduced physical state, the now-disabled seminarian desired to continue as an Augustinian, and that desire brought him to St. Mary Hall at Villanova University, the order’s provincial collegiate house of formation. There, he began his novitiate on July 19, 1969.
By 1974, Atkinson discerned a strong call to the priesthood. However, nowhere in the world were there priests with his condition. And so it was that, with a dispensation from Blessed Pope Paul VI, on the feast of the Presentation of Our Lord, Feb. 2 — a day later to be dedicated to consecrated religious like him — in 1974, Bill Atkinson became the first quadriplegic ever ordained a priest.
From 1975 until 2004, Father Atkinson taught religion at Monsignor Bonner High School in Pennsylvania. According to Father Di Gregorio, the order’s provincial, “His formers students describe him as someone always in control. They were extremely respectful of him. They knew there was something about him, and that won their respect.”
English teacher Grace Kane, his friend and colleague, concurs.
“We always joked,” she said, “because he never had any behavior problems with his students. Because he couldn’t speak really loud, they would really attend to and listen to him.”
What Kane remembers most is his always being in tune with others’ needs.
“My mom was very sick with cancer,” she related. “She took a turn for the worse on a Thursday, and I didn’t get to school the next day. I didn’t get a chance to tell Father or anyone. So that Saturday, mother’s phone rang, and it was Father Atkinson. I don’t know how he knew. I hadn’t said anything to anyone in school. I don’t know how he got my mother’s phone number. How did he know I needed him? He was always there when I needed him.”
Kane also says that, in addition to being phenomenally humble and never wanting to draw attention to himself, Father Atkinson was immensely funny.
She remembered, “At Christmas, he would sing this song about the teachers that he made up about all the things [that had happened] throughout the year. It always left us all laughing.”
But he did have “blue” moments.
“In those times of darkness, he said [read] poetry about his feelings and what it meant for him to fully enter the call of God and to humble himself,” Kane recalled. “He used his voice to create these poems about the middle of the night when he felt scared and [about] what he was going through. So they reflected that he did have somber reflections. And also, when he left Monsignor Bonner, he was very sad.”
He left Bonner in 2004 because his health had become more critically confining. He spent the rest of his life in a nearby Augustinian monastery, where he died on Sept. 15, 2006.
Asked why Father Atkinson is worthy of being raised to the altars, Father Di Gregorio said, “In him, we have an individual who experienced a great challenge in life, but he shows us the ability to not simply endure the challenge, but really accept the challenge and not allow it to diminish his contribution. It says every life has something to offer. Even though we may see on the outside the handicap or limitation, there is still something there that is able to be offered. It’s not a question of enduring hardship. It’s a question of taking the cross that Jesus talks about and seeing this as the instrument for something positive, for something good and that tends to Christians everywhere. For people who find themselves with difficulties in life, he becomes a great encouragement. I think that’s very important for the Church today.”
Father Anthony DiGuglielmo, vice chancellor for the Philadelphia Archdiocese and archdiocesan liaison to the cause, agrees.
He says that, with the saints, “I’m always trying to find something in their lives that speaks to my heart. And with Father, what speaks to my life is his patience. The average person in this world has a lot of struggles in life, daily struggles, and, often, they mention they wish they were more patient, either with others or with themselves. And when we look at Father Bill’s life, they are awed that he had to be so patient. Because to eat or roll over in bed at night, to get dressed, to do the basic, everyday things we take for granted, he had to depend on others. And from all the testimony I’ve heard, he did this with great patience and joy.”
Brian O’Neel writes from Coatesville, Pennsylvania.
The cost of a beatification cause is considerable, and the expenses are many. If you would like to support the effort to beatify Father Atkinson, please visit Augustinian.org/atkinson-guild. Becoming a member of the Father Atkinson Guild is free and incurs no expectation of financial support. People may obtain prayer cards for his cause from the guild.
- Jan. 24-Feb. 6, 2016