Saints Stories

Getting to Know a Servant of God

This past Friday, I covered a story for CatholicPhilly.com about an assembly held for the students at Monsignor Bonner-Archbishop Prendergast Catholic High School in Upper Darby, PA. The purpose was to help students better know former Bonner Prendie student and teacher, the newly minted Servant of God Fr. Bill Atkinson, OSA, who was an amazing, incredible man.

As usual, the comments the speakers made were all fantastic, but too voluminous to include anything but a sample of them in my piece.

So I include them below in the hope that you, too, may find them of interest.

Grace Kane, English teacher, colleague, friend:

Fr. Bill used to say, “Life is like a game of cards. You play the hand you’re dealt.”

He teaches us to never give up your hopes and dreams.

The Fr. Bill Atkinson Foundation has helped 75 students as of last year.

Our whole idea here was to help you understand who Father was, personally. Not just as someone whose name we bring up quite often, but to know him personally. Because to know him personally was the best. It really was.

As Dr. Cooke mentioned, we have very special guests in the room, people who Father loved so much and who love him so much.

I’ll start off mentioning Father’s family. These are the people who took care of him from birth to the end of his life, and we’re very glad they were able to come with him today, his sisters, his brothers, nieces, cousins. All different people were able to come visit with us today.

The second group I want to acknowledge [are] his close friends, Fr. Atkinson’s close friends, all of whom, I think, he met through this community. Father was really good at helping us understand what he wanted this school to be, which was a family. And I know many of you have heard that term used with Bonner-Prendie: Family. In my view he started that.

He led us as a group of his friends to believe in the school and believe in the mission of the school. We took that to heart, and we learned from him.

The next group are representatives from his Augustinian community. Father was so, so proud to be an Augustinian, and he worked hard to become one, too. But these are the guys who welcomed him into their community, took care of him, and they helped to help him here with the mission of Bonner-Prendie.

The last group I want to mention are the students: You. Because one of the things Fr. Atkinson loved most about the school – and I feel the same way – the students here, he just had a real love … First of all he was a student here, so I think he had that in common.

But he really, really tried to reach out to students. I think he knew more students than the teachers in the classrooms at times. He was also a teacher.

So we’re doing this for you. We want you to know who he is. To that end, I’m going to introduce to you the first speaker, and that is Father’s dear sister, Mrs. Joan Alice …

Joan Alice Mullen, Fr. Atkinson’s sister

He was the third of seven children. He liked dry beef on toast for breakfast. On Sunday he liked to watch a football game with a hoagie and a beer. He played a mean game of pinochle. And he put ketchup on everything. How could he be considered for sainthood?

This is what Archbishop Chaput had to say:

This honor is not bestowed because he was a quadriplegic, but because his incredible faith, patience, and hope was beautiful and would be a source of encouragement for people with disabilities and reminds us of the great generosity of his family, his religious community, and all who were called to holiness by their special care for this man.

If you take one thing home from what I said today, just keep this one thought in mind: Bill was your average ordinary teenager, just like you, running to class just like you, sitting in assembly just like you, forgetting his lunch. He experienced frustration, problems in school, SATs, home life, illnesses, just like you may be experiencing. Some of his hurdles were extraordinary but remember, he never surrendered to them.

Now that he is a servant of God, pray [for his intercession] for patience and courage to help you get through and get over the hurdles in your life.

Bill was the epitome of the quiet man, but he was a great listener, and he will hear you. Also pray for him and his journey toward sainthood.

 

Lon Barrone, Classmate

He actually taught me how to run a fly pattern. A fly pattern is pretty easy to describe. The quarterback backs up and throws the ball as hard as he can and as far as he can, and you’re supposed to catch. You run as fast as you can toward the end zone. I saw Bill do it 100 times. It seemed so easy. (Of course it isn’t.) What he told me was, ‘Don’t look over your shoulder when you’re running, because it throws you off balance, and you won’t find the ball that way.’ He said, ‘Look straight up.’ Try that sometime where you’re going full speed. ‘Look straight up and find the ball and then run towards it [at] top speed. Pump your arms and don’t put your hand up for the ball. That’s a mistake everybody makes. Don’t put your hands up for the ball until the ball gets there. You can’t catch what isn’t there. So wait. Because if you put your hand up, that slows you down, too. You won’t make it to the ball.’

I think I successfully executed the fly pattern, uh … once. But it was fun learning.

One time I was playing touch football. You see, Bill and I were in homeroom in our sophomore through senior year together here at Bonner. We both graduated in 1963. And in homeroom we were pretty close. We talked a lot because I sat behind him. We were seated alphabetically: Atkinson, Barrone.

One particular day that comes to mind, I was in a very, very gloomy mood. Bad things had happened to me. My girlfriend had cheated on me. There’s nothing worse than that. I was in danger of flunking two subjects. And I’d just lost my job.

Bill noticed the look on my face as he sat down, and he said, ‘What’s wrong with you? What’s the matter?’

And I told him the story of gloom and doom. And I said, ‘Bill, what do you do? What do you do when it’s all falling apart around you?’

And he kinda shrugged and looked at me and said, ‘Gosh when things get that bad, I just look up and say, “Thy will be done.”’

What? Bill was a lot of things back then, but religious wasn’t the first thing that popped into I thought about him. ‘Thy will be done’ You mean like in the ‘Our Father,’ right? I said the ‘Our Father.’ I had no idea that the words actually meant anything. But they meant something to Bill. ‘Thy will be done.’

Imagine my surprise when I [learned] he was going into the Augustinian seminary. Me, too. I went, too. We were both in the seminary together for a few years.

In fact I was there that day when it happened.

I want to tell you what Bill told me about that day and what it tells us about Bill.

Yes, his chord was severed around the third vertebra. He was in a hospital. He lay on his back. He could not move a muscle. He had a tracheotomy that was cut so he could breath. Couldn’t speak. Couldn’t even blink. The doctors worked heroically to stabilize him, to save his life. He was as helpless as a human being could be. But you know what? He could hear. He could hear as well as you can. And he heard the doctors swirling around him. They didn’t know he could hear. There were saying things like, ‘He can’t survive. He can’t make it.’

And they gave him a gift that day. At that moment in his life when he was most helpless, when he had control over absolutely nothing, they gave him a choice. He could prove them wrong. He could choose to survive. He could choose to live. And he did.

The doctors found him alive the next day. They were very generous: They gave him another day. And he lived.

A couple of days later they said, ‘Holy cow, if this keeps up, he’s gonna get bed sores,’ so they brought a special bed in. It was actually two beds. And they flipped him from stomach to back, from back to stomach. He was otherwise totally immobilized.

They were helping him prevent bedsores. He was beginning his rehabilitation. This became evident when it became clear he wanted to be transferred to Magee Memorial to complete his rehabilitation.

This, too, was a difficult thing. He was told, ‘I don’t think you can do that. You can’t do that.’ People with his degree of disability in the sixties … What was there to rehabilitate?

But, see, they were dealing with Bill. And he heard that word, ‘can’t,’ again.

So he went to Magee Memorial, and darn if they didn’t find a few muscles that they could get working up here in his shoulder. He learned how to work an electric wheelchair: Mobility. He learned to feed himself: Dignity.

And then he went to his superiors with the biggie. ‘Father,’ he said, ‘I still want to become a priest.’

Church historians checked it out. Never in the 2,000 year history of the Holy Roman Catholic Church has anyone with his degree of disability, with anywhere near his degree of disability ever been ordained a priest. ‘Can’t do that.’

There’s that word again.

But Bill set it as a goal. And with the help of so many advocates, I was there that day when he was ordained, and John Cardinal Krol told the congregation – he seemed in shock himself – ‘Never in the 2,000 year history of the Holy Roman Catholic Church with this degree of disability ever been ordained a priest,’ almost as if to say, ‘How did this happen?’

And then [Father] came here, to our school, folks, Monsignor Bonner-Prendie and began his ministry. Or should I say continued his ministry.

He was known as, eh, a tough teacher. I know he was a tough teacher because my nephew had him years back, my nephew Nick. I said, ‘Hey, Nick, I hear you have Fr. Atkinson in class.’ ‘Yeah, Uncle Lon, he’s a tough teacher.’ ‘Tough?’ I said. ‘What do you mean tough? He can’t hit you.’ He said, ‘No, no, no, no, no. It’s nothing like that. It’s just so hard to walk up to him and say, ‘I can’t do it.’

There’s that word ‘can’t’ again, huh?

That was a gift to me. Ever since then to this very day, whenever I feel like I can’t do it, I imagine myself walking up to Ats, to Bill, to Fr. Atkinson, walking up to him and saying, ‘I can’t do it.’ And I find that the words won’t come. It usually doesn’t work that way.

That was his gift to me, but it’s also his gift to you.

Bill Atkinson, patron saint of ‘What do you mean I can’t?’

 

Ralph Celidonio, coach, colleague, friend

[As one of his players whom he coached:] He had something different. You should never say you had a favorite student, but of the kids … he was my favorite.

[The principle got on the PA system and said we were going to pray a decade of the Rosary for a former student who had been in a life-threatening accident. Around this time Coach and his wife had just had their first child, a girl.] When [the principal] said [it was] ‘Bill Atkinson,’ it was almost like [hearing something had happened to] my daughter. That’s how hard it hit me.

He would have been a great priest [even] without the accident.

When that [i.e., the accident] happened, I thought to myself, ‘Why would God let something like that happen to a good person?’ And that question comes up often in our lives. You hear about it all the time. Tragedies happen to good people. But yet, you know, when you think about it, it was a blessing. Look at all of the people he helped through the years. Thousands and thousands. Not just Bonner people but people from all around, people from other countries who heard about him going on and becoming a priest and helping others and being able to overcome the tremendous handicap that he had. There is a God, and God does work in strange ways.

Near the end of my career, I happened to walk out the back door. Bill was in his wheelchair at the entrance of the school there. And that day for some reason, no one was there speaking with him. Usually students or parents or somebody would always be stopping by, talking to him.

So I stopped for a second, and I said, ‘Bill, just think about this: Think of how far we’ve come in life: From 69th St. to Garrett Rd. and Landsdowne Ave., about two miles.’ And Bill said, ‘Yeah, but what a great ride.’

 

 

Fr. Rob Hagan, OSA, family friend, Villanova basketball chaplain

Graduations, parties, backyard barbeques, that’s how I knew him.

Before I ever saw him say Mass, in the ordinary, everyday nitty gritty aspects of life is where I built a friendship with Fr. Bill Atkinson. It’s really inspiring to see this auditorium packed, because his story is your story. He’s one of yours. He’s an alum. He’s part of your family. And this story needs to be told. Family. Spirit. Never giving up. Humility. Faith. Universal values. We all read the papers. We all watch TV. We know the world has become a difficult place. We need inspiration.

And so our Church has the Communion of Saints. It’s like the Catholic Church’s version of the Hall of Fame. And there’s a reason why we talk about Michael Jordan and Babe Ruth and people who’ve gone on before us, are examples of greatness. So the Church has its own version of the Hall of Fame and that is the Communion of Saints.

You can pick people out. Ordinary people. People like you me who grew up in Upper Darby and rode the trolley. Who played baseball right out on this field, who walked these very halls, whose lives – in a very real and powerful way – reflected Jesus. Reflected Jesus.

And that’s why we’re here. Because Bill Atkinson, through the hardship, through the joy, through the difficulty, and through the setbacks, filled with the Spirit of Jesus, lived his life with joy and enthusiasm, and when you were in his presence, you were in the presence of something very special. He brought the spirit of Christ to others.

I think a lot of times when we think about the saints, we think about like they were in church 24/7, that they were in their prayers all the time. And then we meet real people, like Fr. Bill, who was a chaplain for the football team, who was a chaplain for the basketball team, who taught religion, who wasn’t [indiscernible] with guys who got in trouble. And he didn’t judge. And he didn’t hold it against him. And he said, ‘You can do better.’

When you looked at him and the way he lived his life, he made you want to be a better person. That, my friends, is a spirit that never dies.

And so now, yes, he’s been designated Servant of God. I’m not an expert on canonization, but what I’ve come to understand from our Provincial, Fr. Michael Di Gregorio, who has been a staunch advocate for this cause – and the Catholic Conference of Bishops now have word about how special Fr. Bill was – is that this isn’t some top down decision. This isn’t something that Pope Francis just decides on his own. This is a movement that comes all the way up from the bottom, from the people in Upper Darby, from the people at Bonner, from people who knew him on the field, from people who had a roast beef sandwich with him at Casey’s. From people who rode on the back of his wheelchair to get into Springfield down at the Sea (indiscernible) to beat the cover charge. Everyday, ordinary experiences of people who said, ‘This man was special, and his life was heroic and worthy of imitation.”

You as Bonner-Prendie students should be very, very proud because his story is your story.

I did not plan on being a priest. I met this man and became friends with him, and his faith was contagious. He lived that gospel message of strength through weakness. Couldn’t get out of his chair, couldn’t brush his own teeth, and he was the strongest man I ever knew. Internal strength. Internal strength is a gift.

I have a great job, and one of the things I do is I’m chaplain for Villanova’s basketball team. And we all know what happened this year.

But I’ll tell you right now, that story was hardly about basketball. And I took great inspiration from a chaplain at Msgr. Bonner who also won two Catholic League championships when Fr. Horn was principle.

The importance of listening and making sure everyone knows that they have a role to play. Whether you’re a starter, whether you’re a star, whether you’re the strongest or a manager, that everyone has a role to play.

Two years ago, when I was talking to the team, and I gave the whole Villanova basketball team a copy of the book called, Green Bananas, which is a book written by another Msgr. Bonner graduate Steve McWilliams, who had a wonderful series of conversations with Fr. Bill about life. It’s not an autobiography. It’s about life. And I will recommend that book to each and every single one of you. It’s an easy read. It’s something you can put on your nightstand. And it has wonderful life lessons in there about never giving up and never judging others and finding forgiveness and understanding that everyone has a vocation.

We talked about Bill as a team. And one of the things we said this year as we went on that championship run is that our strength was our humility. It wasn’t about being the most talented or the strongest, but it was about doing things together. And that when we do things together, we have a strength beyond our own individual strength. Fr. Bill taught us that. And we pass those messages on to every single person we come in contact with along our way. And I’m telling you, our team this year, they latched onto that message. And in an age of power, Big 5 conferences where they say, ‘A little Catholic school in this age. You can’t win a national championship. You don’t have that big football money.’ Little Catholic school does the impossible because they’re inspired by people who understand that strength comes in a lot of different ways.

And you look at Ryan Arcidiacono coming up the court, 4.7 seconds left, as a senior and a captain, and everybody’s dream is to take that last shot, and in humility he passes it up to a teammate who had a better shot.

Fr. Bill Atkinson didn’t get to take a lot of shots in his life, but he made all the passes. He had all the assists. He spent his whole life trying to make sure that you were doing better. And that, my friends, is a story that needs to be told.

He was paralyzed, but he still found a way to move. He moved mountains with faith. And there are times in each and every one of our lives where we feel paralyzed, paralyzed by fear, paralyzed by the inability to make a decision. We’re stuck in a rut, and we feel like we can’t move. …

So let’s remember – as we move forward into our day, the week, and the summer – people who might need some prayers for some extra strength. And through the intercession of Fr. Bill Atkinson, call for a renewed spirit. And our faith tells us, it comes.

I’ll close with Fr. Bill’s own words. Many of you have heard it. It’s a poem that he wrote when people would ask him how he did all that he did with all the setbacks and all the forces working against him.

I would say it’s not just a poem, it’s a prayer.

“How’d you do it?” people would say

So confining, day after day

Having others around for constant care

Ever wonder if life’s unfair?

“How’d you do it?” people would ask.

“Is it better now than in the past?

To see others do what you used to?

Realizing that you cannot do them anymore

“How’d you do it?” people have said

“Needing help in and out of bed.”

Doubts at time, patience wearing thin

Ever wonder how it will end?

“How’d you do it, day after day?”

The path taken wasn’t my way

The choice was Another’s, not my own

He sent me help; couldn’t do it alone

How’d I do it? Let me confide:

Always with others right by my side

Family and friends from the start

Gave me love in no small part

How’d I do it day after day?

Wouldn’t have it any other way

They shared triumphs and setbacks, too

Been blessed when I look back and review

How’d I do it? Let me reply:

On those who helped me, I totally relied

They taught me to live, not just to cope;

With their love, they gave me hope.

How’d I do it, day after day?

The help of others, all along the way.

Vowed and friends, sisters and brothers,

I simply borrowed the strength of others

 

Charlie Gallagher, former colleague

I taught here for 44 years, so all the years Father was here, I was here. That’s how I first came to meet him.

You were talking about his sense of humor. Can you tell me about that.

He would play a practical joke. For example, a teacher had hit a deer [in their car] and was all upset about it. So he had a friend of his in the Springfield Police Department send him a citation. “According to such-and-such, such-and-such, such-and-such, this occurred on such-and-such a date.”

And he let it go for about it week, and then he made sure [the other teacher] knew about it. But it’s that type of practical joke.

He used to write a Christmas poem [each year] about all the stupid stuff faculty did. You know, somebody came in with two shoes that didn’t match. That would end up in the poem.

He was unifying. He was the heart and soul of the school because he … How can you complain about anything when he was able to get through what he did?

You know, no matter what was happening in my life, you know, I looked at him and say, “If he can get through that, I can get through this.”

He was that type of a person and that type of example.

That’s awesome.

Yeah, he was awesome. I mean it was like, you know, he an uncanny knack of helping people. Especially, like, students. If … You know, he … I don’t know what type of power he had, but he had some ability to see what was, you know, whether somebody was happy or sad and if there … If he thought he could do something for them, he would.

What are your thoughts now that his cause is going forward for beatification?

I can’t see anybody, you know, I thought he was a saint when he was alive, and I think he’s a saint, you know. God gave him a job to do, and he did it well, you know, under the most trying circumstances. If you saw him in the bed, he couldn’t move. He couldn’t scratch his head, an itch. But he was able … He got through it all.

A friend of mine was at Magee Rehab Center when he was there, and he just inspired other people. No matter where he went, he was an inspiration.

He would also go to the VA hospital, you know, the quadriplegics and paraplegics, talk to them to show, basically, you know, you can have a life. Like I say, everywhere he went, he was looking to help other people. That was his life’s goal, and that’s what he did.

 

Thank you for planning this day to learn about Father Atkinson.  All those talks from the people sharing their experience with Father Atkinson increased my faith in the Lord and made me feel blessed to have a man like Father Atkinson to walk the halls of Bonner.  Paul Silverio

Thank you so much for orchestrating this inspiring assembly.  It really helped me to see who Father Bill was as a person, and not just a name.  It was so well executed and incredibly sincere, and I think that’s what made it so powerful.  I really did learn a lot and thank you immensely – you really impacted me.  Theodore Greiner

 

Principal John Cooke

The whole reason behind this is that the kids hear about Fr. Atkinson in the news and the media about his journey to sainthood, but – as Grace mentioned today – they just know him on the surface. So this gave them an opportunity to really know him as a person and see how important he really is to our community. So I think it’s a great event to really do that, and to hear it from the family members and the people who knew him.

A lot of these kids come from single parent families. They struggle to meet the tuition. But the kids really love it here. It’s just that the challenges of everyday life. A few weeks ago there were some drugs and a gun found in the building. It was pretty big. Kids very easily can go down that path in this neighborhood and in this day and time, and they turn to that rather than trusting in their faith. So this is a good opportunity for them to turn to somebody who’s from their neighborhood, part of their community. As was said over and over again, this is somebody who belongs to their community who they can really relate to.

About 70% of the students at BPHS are Catholic.

I would say that even though [some] are not Catholic, a lot of our kids do have faith. I mean, we pray twice a day. We do major liturgical event a month, and they have to participate to be part of the community. And I think that that really gives them some faith in some [way]. So even those who are not Catholic, I think have faith. They may not be baptized Catholic, but they’re a part of our community.

 

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3 thoughts on “Getting to Know a Servant of God

  1. Mr. O’Neel,

    I am an Augustinian friar presently working on a biography of Father Atkinson. I wonder if I might have permission to quote from your interviews posted here in my work.

    Regards,
    Bryan Kerns, O.S.A.

    Like

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