WILLIAM EDWARD ATKINSON, O.S.A. was born on January 4, 1946, in Philadelphia, PA, the son of Allen J. Atkinson and Mary S. Connelly. He had two brothers and four sisters. He was baptized at St. Alice’s Catholic Church, Upper Darby, PA, on January 27, 1946. He attended St. Alice’s Elementary School, graduating in 1959, and then attended Msgr. Bonner High School, graduating in 1963. He spent a year as a postulant at Augustinian Academy, Staten Island, NY, and entered the Order as a novice at Good Counsel Novitiate, New Hamburg, NY, September 9, 1964, and it was during that year that Bill had the tobogganing accident on February 22, 1965, that was to change the rest of his life.
Hospitalized and near death at St. Francis Hospital, in Poughkeepsie, NY, he was stabilized through the efforts of that medical team, his family and his Augustinian brothers. He spent a year at Magee Rehabilitation in Philadelphia, PA. The accident left him almost completely paralyzed from the neck down, with limited movement of his head, neck, shoulders and arms. He expressed his wish to continue as an Augustinian, and so he came to St. Mary’s Hall, Villanova University, the Province’s Collegiate House of Formation.
He began again his novitiate year there, July 19, 1969 to July 20, 1970, and professed simple vows, followed by the profession of solemn vows on July 20, 1973. A care team of fellow Augustinian professed ministered to Bill during his time in formation and for many years beyond. Bill moved about with the use of his motorized wheelchair. Bill completed his years of college and expressed his call from God to priesthood. John Cardinal Krol, at that time the Archbishop of Philadelphia, said that he would be pleased to ordain Bill when Bill and the Province thought that that time had arrived. The Department of Theology at Villanova University and friars who were on the faculty of the Washington Theological Union in Washington, DC, helped Bill complete his theological studies, and Cardinal Krol, with a special dispensation from Pope Paul VI, ordained Bill to the priesthood at his hometown parish of St. Alice’s in Upper Darby, PA, on February 2, 1974, almost nine years after the accident that left him a quadriplegic. His first Mass was celebrated at the Fieldhouse at Villanova University.
From 1975 until 2004, almost thirty years, Father Bill was stationed at St. Joseph’s Friary, Msgr. Bonner High School, Drexel Hill, PA. In the High School, he taught theology, mostly to the senior class. He was assistant school chaplain, senior class retreat coordinator, moderator of the football team, and the director of the after-school and Saturday detention program, known as JUG, Justice Under God. He was known for his wonderful sense of humor, except in the classroom. His mere presence created discipline, order, and control. He was known to be an excellent teacher, encouraging moderator, and compassionate confessor.
One former student, of the many hundreds of students Bill guided, said of Bill that he was the most active person that he knew. A friar who has cared for Bill for many years told the story that on Bill’s birthday as he and Bill were driving home from a school football game, he heard Bill say, “Half in and half out.” When asked what he meant, Bill said, “Today is my 38th birthday. I have now spent half of my life in this wheelchair and half my life out of it.” When asked, “How long did it take for you to accept the fact that you were never going to walk again?”, Bill said, “You never really accept it. Every night when you are put to bed, you hope that tomorrow is the morning you get up and walk. What you learn to accept is that you don’t get up and walk.” When asked, “How long did that take?”, Bill replied, “About five years. Life is like a card game. You either play with the cards that you have been dealt or you fold, and I am not ready to fold.”
Another friar suggested that Father Bill embodied the mysterious truth of Paul’s words (2Cor 12:9): “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” However, his family, his fellow friars and his dedicated care team all knew that Bill was the captain of the team around him. His strong spirit and courage brought him sixty years of life.
Father Bill was the recipient of many awards and acknowledgements, among them an honorary doctorate from Villanova University in 2000.
In 2004, Father Bill came to live at the Health Care Unit of the newly renovated Saint Thomas Monastery, Villanova University. There, and at Bonner, Bill experienced the care of a dedicated nursing staff. His family and his Augustinian brothers were also a constant presence and support.
Father Bill passed over to the Lord on Friday afternoon, September 15, 2006, surrounded by those who loved and cared for him. His funeral liturgy was celebrated on Tuesday, September, 19, 2006 in Saint Thomas Church, Villanova University, after several hours of visitation.
Father Bill was buried the following morning in the Augustinian section of Calvary Cemetery, West Conshohocken, PA.