Prayer Service Celebrates Golden Anniversary of Fr. Bill Atkinson, O.S.A.’s Dispensation

Story by Karen Knight of the Cape May County Herald.
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Family and friends gathered in Ocean City, NJ on August 1 for a 50th anniversary prayer service commemorating the date of the telegram from Pope Paul VI granting dispensation for the ordination of the world’s first quadriplegic priest in the Catholic Church.

Father Bill Atkinson, O.S.A., spent more than 45 years vacationing at his family’s summer residence on West Avenue, in Ocean City, and earlier on Asbury Avenue. At age 19, he was injured in a tobogganing accident during his novitiate and could not move a muscle in his body, but continued his studies to become a priest without any guarantee of being able to be ordained.

Fr. Bill needed the pope to override canon law to be ordained, demonstrating his life, development, health, and abilities were suitable for holy orders. That came Aug. 8, 1973, with just three words in a telegram from the pope – “Atkinson Dispensation Granted.” Nine years after the accident, Feb. 2, 1974, he was ordained at his hometown parish of St. Alice’s, in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania.

“We knew we had to honor his memory and the best way would be to return to the town that he adopted as his second home, both as a normal, healthy child, at 16th and Asbury, and then as an adult at age 19, when he was injured during his novitiate year studying to be an Augustinian priest,” said Marie Keith. Keith came to know of Atkinson when her parish came together in a prayer service to ask for a miracle for her son, Cole, who was injured in a motorcycle accident.

After Atkinson’s accident, he spent his days on the Ocean City Boardwalk at 19th Street and under a pavilion at 20th Street, according to Keith, where he would chat with friends, relatives, and strangers on their way to the beach, hear confessions, or catch up with folks who would see him there each year.

Several people spoke at the Aug. 1 ceremony about how the effort for canonization began and its progress, and what Atkinson was like as a person. Several also talked about their recovery from serious medical conditions after praying to Atkinson.

“My heart is so full seeing all these people here,” Atkinson’s cousin, Mary Moody, said about the crowd of 100 supporters. She was instrumental in pulling together all the material required for the cause for sainthood. “After he (Atkinson) died, I knew we had to do something,” said Moody. “It’s taken us 17 years to get to this point, but I am so happy about where we are.”