Community mourns death of beloved Augustinian

Raynor Denitzio

Over the past few days, people from both the Augustinian and surrounding communities have gathered to celebrate the life of Rev. William Atkinson, O.S.A., who died last Friday at the age of 60.

But anyone who has spoken with Atkinson’s friends knows that if “Ak” found out that everyone was making such a fuss over him, he would have been embarrassed.

“[He] would not attend any event that only really served to honor him.” said Rev. Jack Denny, O.S.A., the chaplain of Villanova Law School and a hall mate of Atkinson’s for 11 years.

It is somewhat ironic, then, that such a massive congregation gathered together for his funeral Tuesday night. With crowds pouring out of St. Thomas of Villanova Church, the size of the crowd was really a testament to the number of lives Atkinson touched during his ministry.

“He brought out the best in people. I think that’s what his real gift is,” said Denny. “[It was] impossible to complain around him. Whatever was troubling you was miniscule compared to what he did and put up with every day.”

Atkinson gained notoriety by being the only priest ever ordained after becoming a quadriplegic. His disability required a special dispensation from Pope Paul VI. After receiving his dispensation, he continued his religious studies and was ordained by Philadelphia Archbishop John Cardinal Krol in 1974.

Atkinson was paralyzed from the neck down during a sledding accident while studying as to become a priest in 1965. He was given deathbed vows because it was feared that he would not live through the weekend. However, it soon became apparent that Atkinson had no intention of giving up. Astounding his friends, family and medical professionals, Atkinson lived for a remarkable 41 years after his accident.

Atkinson was given special permission to use a lay minister during masses, and many people recalled this as one of the greatest honors of their lives.

“He was truly a legend in Delaware County,” said Denny.

A graduate of Monsignor Bonner High School in Upper Darby, Pa, Atkinson returned to his alma mater after his ordination, where he served in a variety of rolls, including teaching, assistant chaplain and football team moderator. However, Atkinson is perhaps best known for his work in the Justice Under God (JUG) program at Monsignor Bonner, more commonly known as detention. Despite the fact that Atkinson had no use of his arms or legs, he was still able to control the school’s troublemakers. Still, despite all the attention gained, Atkinson remained humble.

“Unless there was some other purpose to the event beyond him he wouldn’t go,” said Denny “He hated, hated, hated the limelight, but he wasn’t going to stay inside about it.”

Atkinson was more than willing to participate in events that would call attention to the needs of the handicapped or other charity work, but when the event was for him, Atkinson shied away.

“He received an honorary doctorate from Villanova in May of 2000,” said Denny. “Most people don’t know that because he wouldn’t come.”

This humility was exemplified in the walls of his room, which, despite the numerous honors and awards Atkinson received over the years, was filled with pictures of his family and friends.

Denny did recall the only two awards which Atkinson hung in his room; his distinguished graduate award from St. Alice elementary school in Upper Darby, Pa. and an plaque on which his name was misspelled.

“He got such a kick out of it,” said Denny of the misspelled award.

Through out his life, Atkinson required the help of many people to go about his daily life. He found no shortage, as his family and friends were always willing to pitch in.

“One of his seminary classmates who left the seminary years ago had since married and had children,” said Denny. “He came every morning Monday through Saturday to help get him up.”

“[He was] always grateful. That’s probably the thing that keeps coming back,” said Denny.

Perhaps Atkinson’s spirit is best echoed in his own words to his friend, Fr. Denny:

“Life is like a card game,” said Atkinson, “You either play with the cards that you have been dealt or you fold. I am not ready to fold.”