Throughout his time on earth, Augustinian Father Bill Atkinson demonstrated an extraordinary amount of hope, perseverance, and patience. These virtues were a mainstay of his life following a tobogganing accident during his novice year at Good Counsel Novitiate, New Hamburg, New York, in 1965 which left him paralyzed from the neck down with limited movement of his head, neck, shoulders, and arms.
Despite being a quadriplegic, Father Bill continued his studies and was ordained to the priesthood at Saint Alice Church in Upper Darby on February 2, 1974. Father Bill, the first quadriplegic to seek ordination as a Roman Catholic priest, received a special dispensation from Pope Paul VI on August 1, 1973. Father Bill’s life of heroic virtue has put him on the path toward sainthood. He was named a Servant of God on October 19, 2021.
To continue sharing the extraordinary story of Father Bill’s life and his cause for canonization, the Augustinian Province of Saint Thomas of Villanova and Villanova University are sponsoring a symposium tomorrow, Tuesday, October 3 at Villanova University. The theme is “Overcoming Hardship with Faith, Hope, and Perseverance.”
“It’s the first event of this nature that we’ve done to promote awareness around the cause for canonization for Father Bill,” said Fr. Robert P. Hagan, O.S.A., Prior Provincial of the Province of Saint Thomas of Villanova. “This is not just remembering Father Bill. It’s also hopefully a catalyst for people to exercise their own faith in overcoming whatever is weighing them down and help others do the same.”
“We want people to understand that they have the tools within them, as Father Bill did, things like grace and the sacraments and relying on the good people that God puts in our life to help us carry the crosses that we carry today.”
The symposium will feature a keynote presentation, “The Spirituality of Disability,” by Brendan T. Sammon, Ph.D., Associate Professor at Saint Joseph’s University, and a presentation by Oblate Father Thomas F. Dailey, Professor of Theology at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary, who will speak about Father Bill’s cause for canonization. Archbishop Nelson Pérez is also scheduled to speak during the lunch hour.
A panel discussion with friends and family of Father Bill will follow the presentations.
A 1963 graduate of Monsignor Bonner High School in Drexel Hill, Father Bill taught theology for almost 30 years at his alma mater. While at Bonner he also served as assistant school chaplain, senior class retreat coordinator, moderator of the football team, and director of the detention program known as Justice Under God (JUG).
“He had complete control over the classroom,” Father Hagan explained. “It wasn’t like there was another teacher administrator in there trying to help him teach his classes. He really functioned at a high level and was an instrument of God’s grace through his ministry.”
Father Hagan noted that Father Bill drew strength from the people that God put in his life – his family, his Augustinian brothers, and the community at Monsignor Bonner.
“He was very clear to make sure that people knew that he wasn’t doing this alone,” Father Hagan added. “He was grateful for what he had. With the grace that came from God, his family, his friends, he did the most with what he had, and as we can see, his life really bore much fruit.”
Father Hagan reflected on how Father Bill can serve as a role model for Catholics.
“As you get to know Father Bill and his life, it’s very clear from whom he took his strength,” Father Hagan said. “He had a certain internal fortitude that was directly attributable to his relationship with the Lord.
“He wasn’t just a good guy; he was someone whose life mirrored Christ in a very intentional and obvious way. The way that he accepted his cross, the way that he carried his cross, the grace, the patience and perseverance that he exemplified, the Church and the world needs examples of people who can show us that a life as a disciple of Christ, though not easy, is a walk that can be done.”
The symposium will be held from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. in the Connelly Center at Villanova University. It also will be livestreamed.
For more information about the symposium, visit here.
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