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Jerry Costello

A Paralyzed Priest’s Heroic Virtue

   Can a quadriplegic man be ordained a priest in the Catholic Church? Further, can the Church consider his cause for canonization?

                The answer—somewhat surprisingly, perhaps—is “yes” on both counts. And you need look no further than an Augustinian named Father Bill Atkinson—now known formally as Father William E. Atkinson, OSA, Servant of God—to make the point. Father Bill’s is quite the story, and it could do with a bit of retelling here.

                The story has a quiet beginning. Bill Atkinson was born in Philadelphia on January 27, 1946; his parents would have six other children. After grammar school in Upper Darby, where he grew up, he enrolled in Msgr. Bonner High School, Drexel Hill, graduating in 1963. Then he became an Augustinian, entering the order as a novice in 1964.

                It was during his novice year that Bill had the tobogganing accident in New York State that would change his life. Hospitalized and near death, he eventually was stabilized but had to spend a year in rehabilitation in Philadelphia. The accident had left him a quadriplegic; the injuries to his spine meant he would be paralyzed in all four limbs. And he would spend his life in a wheelchair.                

                No matter; his Augustinian brothers rallied round. Year after year they saw to it that he went through all the preparation for the priesthood, and he was ordained by Cardinal John Krol (then Archbishop of Philadelphia) in 1974, nine years after his tobogganing accident. He celebrated his first Mass at Villanova University.

                Then began 30 years at his alma mater, Msgr. Bonner High School. He was much more than a teacher there. He taught theology, true, but he was also assistant school chaplain; the senior class retreat coordinator, and moderator of the football team—all from his motorized wheelchair.

                One day some years later a student heard him say “Half in and half out.” He explained: “Today is my 38th birthday. I have now spent half my life in this wheelchair and half out of it.”

                Students loved his warm and slightly offbeat sense of humor—except in the classroom. There he was known as a strict disciplinarian, and had a reputation as an encouraging moderator and a compassionate confessor.

                Father Bill spent the last two years of his life in a nursing home, always buoyed by the presence of his fellow Augustinians. They were with him when he died too, on a Friday afternoon in 2006 at the age of 60. His funeral was held at Villanova.

                That’s pretty much all there is to it—except that in 2014 some invited guests got together to discuss his life. They were there to answer to the challenge of a visitor from Rome: “Convince me that Father Bill lived a life of heroic virtue. Persuade me that he is a saint.”  And one by one they told him stories: of Father Bill’s character, his fidelity, his ministry, his humor, his humility. By evening’s end, his cause was under way.

                Father Bill wrote little poems, too; always touching on his fate. Here are the first and final stanzas of “The Strength of 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 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.”



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