Sunday, Nov. 1 happens to be All Saints Day on the Christian calendar, and what better time can there be to televise a documentary on a priest who could become Philadelphia’s next home-grown canonized saint?
The half-hour program, which will premier at 5 p.m. that day on Channel 12 WHYY-TV Philadelphia, is called “extraORDINARY/The Bill Atkinson Story,” and it celebrates the life of Augustinian Father William Atkinson (1946-2006).
Despite a horrendous accident as a young seminarian, he went on to be the first quadriplegic man ever ordained to the priesthood. He followed this with an inspirational three-decade teaching career at his alma mater, Msgr. Bonner High School.
A cause for his potential canonization was opened in Philadelphia by Archbishop Charles Chaput in September 2015, and at this time he has the title, “Servant of God,” the first step on the road to formal sainthood.
It is perhaps not surprising that “extraORDINARY/The Bill Atkinson Story,” which will also be televised on several other PBS stations around the country, was produced by one of Father Atkinson’s former students at Bonner, Tom Farrell, CEO of Workshop Content Studios.
“I feel strongly that the Catholic Church needs a role model like Father Atkinson that we can identify with and look up to,” Farrell said. “I find him an inspiration to a lot of people with disabilities, but beyond his disabilities, he was able to command a classroom in a way I thought was remarkable.”
In making the film, Farrell said the biggest challenge “was condensing his story into half an hour. We could just as easily have done it in an hour and a half.”
Father Atkinson’s story began in St. Alice Parish, Upper Darby, one of the seven children of Allen and Mary Atkinson. It was a thoroughly Catholic family with Mass every Sunday and confession every Saturday, needed or not.
After St. Alice he went on to Msgr. Bonner High. A typical teen, he was active in sports, was popular with the girls and dated. His family was perhaps mildly surprised when after high school he announced his intention to enter the Augustinian order to study for the priesthood.
His first year as a postulant at Augustinian Academy on Staten Island was uneventful. The following year at Our Mother of Good Counsel Novitiate in New Hamburg, New York, was not.
It was Feb. 22, 1965, that the unthinkable happened. During recreation while sledding with a group of his classmates, his toboggan hit a tree. Bill, who was in front, suffered a broken neck although the rest of his classmates were unhurt.
After an initial six weeks in a Poughkeepsie Hospital he was brought down to Philadelphia and Magee Rehabilitation Hospital, and further rehab in Malvern.
It is to the credit of the Augustinians that they stuck by their young seminarian all the way through. Although his accident left him permanently without the use of his arms and legs, with permission from the Vatican he was permitted to continue his priestly studies.
He was ordained by Cardinal John Krol at the Villanova Fieldhouse on Feb. 2, 1974, and the following school year he joined the faculty at his alma mater, Msgr. Bonner High School, where he remained until two years before his death.
“I found him to be an inspiration to everyone at Bonner,” Farrell said. “He could get up every morning and do what he did. He certainly inspired me to go to school knowing what he was going through. He was sunny, smart and creative.”
Saints, of course, are canonized really to be examples to the rest of us. Father Bill Atkinson most certainly is an example not just for person with physical disabilities, but a model for Christian life for all who face challenges that are seemingly overwhelming.
It’s hard to think a of a better role model.
Save the date on Nov. 1, and remember to pray for his cause and for his intercession.
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