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Fr. Bill Atkinson OSA: The first quadriplegic priest of the Catholic Church

The Order of St. Augustine possesses countless testimonies of men and women who, in their passage through the world, left trails of holiness, and who today are a source of inspiration for all of us who follow the spirituality of St Augustine. So it is with Fr Bill Atkinson O.S.A., servant of God, whose life is an incredible tale of God's love for each one of us. Here we share it with you.

Who was Father Bill Atkinson?

William Edward Atkinson, the future Fr Bill, was born on 4th January 1946 in Philadelphia, USA. He was one of three sons and four daughters of Allen Atkinson and Mary (née Connelly). He attended St Alice Elementary School and Monsignor Bonner High School, and upon graduation in 1963 he sought to enter the Order of St Augustine. He spent a year as a postulant at the Augustinian Academy on Staten Island, New York, and then entered the novitiate of Our Mother of Good Counsel of the Villanova Province in New Hamburg, New York on 6th September 1964.

Bill was a typically active young man: blond-haired and blue-eyed, handsome and athletic. He shared a spirited personality with his brother Al, a professional American football player (and who would later go on to win the 1969 Super Bowl with the New York Jets). They also shared an interest in a vocation to the priesthood, but in the end it was Bill who responded to the call. 

It was as a 19-year-old seminarian that he decided during a break to sled down a snowy mountain on the novitiate grounds with three of his classmates. However, what began as fun on that fateful 22nd February 1965 ended in tragedy, as on a descent of almost four hundred metres, Bill's sled crashed against a tree, seriously damaging his spinal column. 

He was admitted to hospital with no hope of survival, but he did and, after 14 months there he was discharged with a quadriplegia that left him immobilised from the neck down: his head had to be held artificially upright so that it would not droop, and only after years of rehabilitation did he eventually win some autonomy by means of a motorised wheelchair and a pencil clasped in his mouth.

The first quadriplegic priest of the Catholic Church

After his accident, and to the surprise of many, Bill Atkinson expressed his heartfelt desire to continue his formation as an Augustinian priest, a desire that was lovingly accepted by the Order in spite of all the care and attention that such a decision implied. So it was that he came to St Mary's Hall at Villanova University, the Collegiate House of Formation of the Province, where his formation was entrusted to a hand-picked team of friars. 

In 1970 he professed his simple vows, followed in 1973 by his perpetual vows. With a special dispensation from Pope Paul VI, Fr Bill was ordained a priest at his home parish of St Alice in Upper Darby, PA, on 2nd February 1974, almost nine years after his accident. He celebrated his first Mass in the Villanova University Fieldhouse thanks to a special system in his hands that allowed him to touch the sacred form for consecration.

Fr Bill was famous for his wonderful sense of humour

For nearly thirty years, from 1975 to 2004, Fr Bill was stationed at Monsignor Bonner High School, where he himself had studied. At Bonner, he taught theology, especially to seniors. He was also assistant school chaplain, coordinator of senior class retreats, moderator of the football team, and director of the after-school and Saturday recovery program, JUG: Justice Under God.

Fr Bill was famous for his wonderful sense of humour, as well as his discipline and order in the classroom. Students and staff recognized him as an excellent teacher, an encouraging moderator, and a compassionate confessor. Over the years, he received many awards and accolades, including an honorary doctorate from Villanova University in 2000.

In 2004, Fr Bill moved to the Villanova University St Thomas Monastery Health Care Unit, and passed away on Friday evening, 15th September 2006, surrounded by his loved ones. He was buried the following morning in the Augustinian section of Calvary Cemetery, West Conshohocken, PA.

A symposium to raise awareness of Fr Bill Atkinson's Cause

Thanks to Fr Bill's extraordinary virtue-filled life, Fr Josef Sciberras, Postulator General of the Order, introduced the Cause for his beatification after a group of Atkinson's friends and acquaintances met with him in Rome in 2014, convinced of his holiness. This resulted in the recognition of Fr Bill’s heroic virtues and the title of Servant of God of the Catholic Church. 

In order to give greater visibility to the Cause, the Villanova Province - together with Villanova University - organised a symposium to talk about Bill's life’s witness and the experiences of those who had the joy of being touched in their own lives by him. 

Among the speakers at the symposium was Dr Brendan T. Sammon Ph.D., associate professor at St Joseph's University, who spoke about different aspects of the spirituality of disability. Also on hand was Monsignor Nelson J. Perez D.D., Archbishop of Philadelphia, who shared his reflections on the value of the Communion of Saints and some of the many lessons we can learn from Fr Bill's life.

In the afternoon, Thomas F. Dailey OSFS, Professor of Theology at St Charles Seminary in Philadelphia, spoke on the canonization process of Fr Bill. The event culminated with a panel discussion featuring four people who were very close to Fr Bill: his sister Joan Mullen; his student and caregiver Ted Donnelly; Anne Marie Dolceamore, assistant principal at Monsignor Bonner & Archbishop Prendergast Catholic High School, who attributes a significant healing in her life to Fr Bill's intercession; and Michael Gaynor, executive director of undergraduate admissions at Villanova University, who spoke both as a friend of Fr Bill's and as a caregiver himself to his disabled children.


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