Quadriplegic priest ‘never had a bad day’

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Servant of God Augustine Father Bill Atkinson never bought green bananas because he said he never knew if he would be around to see them ripen. He died at age 60 in 2006 from complications of an infection. He lived as a quadriplegic, confined to a wheelchair since age 19 following a toboggan accident. He was the first quadriplegic to be ordained a priest with a special dispensation from Pope Paul VI. He was ordained in 1974 by Philadelphia Cardinal John Krol, almost nine years after the accident that had left him paralyzed.

In the book, Green Bananas: The Wisdom of Father Bill Atkinson, written through conversations with Steve McWilliams, Father Atkinson shared his thoughts on sainthood.

“We’re all called to be saints,” he said. “I don’t think God wants us to go around feeling great about ourselves just because we lead a good life. That’s what His plan is for everyone. But living a life committed to Christ? I hope I’ve been true to that.”

The official cause for canonization of Father Atkinson began in November 2015.

Father Atkinson had two sisters and four brothers. In another reflection in the book, “Without the love of my family and friends, I wouldn’t have survived the accident,” he said. “I would have died many times if I didn’t have them to live for.”

Father Atkinson was a teacher, coach, assistant school chaplain, friend and brother. He taught for 30 years at Monsignor Bonner High School in Drexel Hill, Pa., where he was an alumnus. He moved to the health care unit of Villanova University in 2004 where he died two years later.

Father Atkinson was able to drive an electric wheelchair to move around. He required a full-time team to care for his physical needs. He relied on others to be his hands while celebrating Mass.

Marge Roccio, secretary to the principal of the school now called Bonner and Prendergast, said she knew Father Atkinson and his family from being in the same class with his twin sisters.

“My youngest son, Kevin, graduated in 1995 and took care of Father Atkinson for a few years,” she said. “He would drive him, clothe him and he would sleep in the other room where there was a monitor. Father Atkinson would ask for him to scratch his arm or anything he couldn’t do himself.”

Roccio said there were many boys from Bonner that helped Father Atkinson. She described him as funny and said that he played tricks on people. Roccio said whenever she asked Father Atkinson how he was, he would respond each time, “I’ve never had a bad day.”

According to the website, www.augustinian.org/the-cause, when Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput introduced Father Atkinson’s cause of sainthood, he said, “William Atkinson’s cause will be a beautiful one, because it would be a source of encouragement for people with this kind of accident in their life, this kind of disability, but also reminds us of the great generosity of his family and his (Augustinian) religious community; they were all called to holiness by their special care for this man. I think he will fit very beautifully into the niche of the communion of saints as a very special patron.”

Elliott can be reached at eelliott@catholicherald.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016

@eelliottACH