A history-making Philadelphia priest and longtime archdiocesan high school teacher will move closer to canonization next month during a ceremony at Villanova University.
Archbishop Nelson Pérez will preside over the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s closing session in the diocesan phase of the canonization cause for Servant of God William E. Atkinson, a professed priest of the Order of St. Augustine – and better known to local faithful simply as Father Bill Atkinson.
The ceremony will take place Oct. 19 at 6:30 p.m. in the Church of St. Thomas of Villanova, located on the campus of Villanova University. Attendance is open to the public, subject to seating capacity and prevailing COVID-19 protocols at the university.
The event is the first major milestone in an inquiry that began back in September 2015, when Archbishop Charles Chaput formally opened the canonization cause for Father Atkinson, the first quadriplegic ordained a Catholic priest and a beloved faculty member at Msgr. Bonner High School in Upper Darby.
Over the past six years, the Philadelphia Archdiocese has examined historical documents, heard witness testimonies and conducted related investigations, all to gather morally certain proof of Father Atkinson’s life of heroic virtue.
With local and international leaders of the Augustinian religious order on hand, archdiocesan officials will summarize those results at the Oct. 19 session, and Archbishop Pérez will decree that the documentation be authenticated, sealed and delivered to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
And while the canonization process still has a long way to go once the file reaches Rome, many in the archdiocesan area are confident of the outcome – including Father Atkinson’s sister, Joan Mullen.
In a 2019 talk at St. Katherine of Siena Parish in Philadelphia, Mullen described her baby brother as someone whose compassion drew him to those in need.
“He loved people and he loved to teach at Bonner,” his sister said. “He had the wonderful quality of being able to pick out a teenager who was on the wrong path, maybe having trouble at home. That was the boy he would ask to help him or to get him back on time or maybe drive him to the dentist. … I think he did it to give them self-assurance.”
Father Atkinson’s own struggles enabled him to empathize with others. Born in 1946, the popular, athletic Bonner alumnus was paralyzed in a near-fatal toboggan accident while still an Augustinian novice.
As family members gathered at his hospital bedside, novice director Father William Krupa received his profession of vows, later noting the future Father Atkinson “never uttered a single word of complaint or self-pity” despite great pain and “frightful bed sores” that developed during six weeks of traction.
Mullen recalled that her brother did initially ask “why me?” but then accepted his disabilities.
“It was like, ‘This is what I have to do, and this is what I’m going to do,’” she said. “He got through it and I think it just made him a better person. He was never pompous, just a regular guy and the same brother I had before. I don’t know how to explain it.”
With his health failing, Father Atkinson retired from Bonner in 2004, having served as a teacher, assistant school chaplain, moderator of the football team and director of a detention program affectionately known as “JUG,” or “Justice under God.” He died in 2006 and is buried in the Augustinian section of Calvary Cemetery in West Conshohocken.
Along with the archdiocesan inquiry, a separate investigation based in Rome is examining Father Atkinson’s virtuous life and reputation for sanctity. Both the archdiocesan and Vatican efforts will also evaluate possible miracles attributed to the intercession of Father Atkinson, with the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and, ultimately, Pope Francis making the final call regarding the outcome of the cause.
In the meantime, those who want to learn more about Father Atkinson and support his cause through the Father Bill Atkinson Guild can visit the official Augustinian website at www.augustinian.org/the-cause. Visitors to the site can also access there the 2020 PBS documentary entitled “Extraordinary: The Bill Atkinson Story.”
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