Two Villanovan Priests on the Path to Sainthood

Grace Kennard Staff Writer

When thinking of successful Villanova alumni, one usually remembers those who have excelled in business or have mastered science. Not to be forgotten, however, are those who have succeeded in ministry and spreading the Catholic faith. Among these alumni are two Augustinians, Fathers William Atkinson and John McKniff, who may become saints as they continue on this journey to cannonizarion. Both Augustinians focused their lives on serving others and giving back to their communities. They exemplify what it means to be a Villanovan and all graduates should be proud to share an alma mater with these men.

Father William Atkinson graduated from Villanova in 1974. Before his time at the University, Atkinson entered the Augustinian Academy in Staten Island, New York as a candidate for the Augustinian Order. He was accepted on September 6, 1964 at Our Mother of Good Counsel Novitiate in New Hamburg, New York. During his time as a novice, Atkinson was involved in a toboggan accident with other members, which left him completely paralyzed. Still, after extensive rehabilitation and time in the hospital, Atkinson wished to resume his religious life and was placed at Saint Mary’s Hall in Villanova for the remainder of his novitiate year. He professed vows on July 20, 1970 and with the help of the friars whom he depended on greatly, Atkinson was able to complete his academic and theological studies at the University.

Atkinson was ordained to the priesthood as the first quadriplegic priest on Feb. 2, 1974. Father Bill went on to teach at his former high school where he was also involved extensively in student life. Atkinson passed away on September 15, 2006 and the cause for his canonization was endorsed nine years later on the anniversary of his death. The Diocesan Canonical Process was then opened at Villanova on April 24, 2017 by the Archbishop.

Father John McKniff graduated from Villanova in 1927. Upon graduating high school, he entered the novitiate of the Augustinians and eventually professed his religious vows in 1924. McKniff was sent to Colegio Santa Monica in Rome after completing his undergraduate studies and was ordained to priesthood there at the Lateran Basilica in 1930. 

Father John was one of the first to respond when volunteers were needed to teach in one of the Order’s schools in the Philippine Islands in 1935. A bout of tuberculosis in 1938 demanded he pause his missionary life and return home to recuperate. After time off, he was reassigned to Havana, Cuba in 1939 to the American Augustinian Mission, where he was named pastor of the Church of Santo Christo de Buen Viaje in 1941. Father Bill selflessly furthered the well being of the people of Cuba through his 29 years of ministry in the country. He remained in the country under Fidel Castro when all Americans were expelled from 1959-1968. After returning from Cuba, at the age of 66, McKniff was allowed to join the American Augustinian mission in Chulucanas, Peru where he devoted 22 years to helping the people of Peru. Father Bill passed away on March 24, 1994 in the United States and his cause of canonization was opened in Chulucanas, Peru.

A stained glass window depicting Father Atkinson was installed in Corr Chapel this past summer and another window of Father McKniff is set to be installed in the future. The stories of these two extraordinary alumni and devoted Augustinians can be admired by all. They stand as reminders of our core values as.

[Editor’s Note: This article was made possible by information provided by Father Michael Di Gregorio, O.S.A. in an article published in a University magazine]