PBS Doc ‘extraORDINARY’ Shines a Light on a Possible Saint (VIDEO)

extraORDINARY Fr. Bill Atkinson PBS
Photo credit: The Workshop Content Studios

They say God moves in mysterious ways, and no matter where you land on the spiritual spectrum, there are definitely times when coincidences get crazy enough to make you wonder what is up with the universe, right?

Such a situation arose when this writer received a pitch for extraORDINARY: The Bill Atkinson Story. The 30-minute documentary debuting on PBS in Philadelphia this weekend (and on other markets through November) recounts the life of Father Bill Atkinson, the first paraplegic to ever be ordained in the Catholic Church’s history who is now the subject of a campaign to become canonized as a saint.

Here’s where the coincidence or whatever you choose to call it comes in: Atkinson was a teacher at my high school, Monsignor Bonner, in Drexel Hill, PA. He was the moderator of my older brother’s class and on staff throughout my four years there. The film is executive produced by Tom Farrell (True North: The Sean Swarner Story), whose younger brother Mike was a good friend 180 years ago when we were teens. And I had no idea this film was happening, nor did the publicist requesting coverage know of any of these ties. Yet here we are. Kind of, well, extraordinary, huh?

extraORDINARY Fr. Bill Atkinson PBS

(Photo Courtesy: The Workshop Content Studios)

“We began working on this project just over two years ago,” explains Farrell. “The biggest motivating factor was to get Fr. Atkinson’s story out there on a national level and someday make him a global saintly name.” Fittingly, extraORDINARY premieres on Nov. 1, All Saints Day, and Farrell feels that the Catholic Church could benefit from canonizing his subject, who broke his spine in a toboganning accident in 1965 while studying to become a priest. “We need someone that we can identify with — a regular guy from a regular neighborhood who went on to become a role model for many today.” Citing a photograph of Atkinson greeting Pope John Paul II during his Papal visit to Philly in 1979, Farrell likes to think of it as “an encounter between two Saints. One already declared a saint and the other we are still waiting to become a saint!”

While the doc covers much of Atkinson’s inspirational life in a briskly paced half-hour — “[his] story is a feature film waiting to happen,” offers Farrell — much more time is being invested in the actual case for his canonization. “The process is currently in what is called the Diocesan Phase,” he continues of the Church’s initial acknowledgment that there is, indeed, something worth investigating. Diocesan officials will then conduct extensive interviews with people who knew the late priest (Atkinson passed away in 2006), ranging from family members, former students, co-workers and members of his Augustinian order.

“Then at the conclusion of [this] investigation, if the person has proven to be ‘heroic in virtue,’ they are then declared Venerable,” says Farrell. At the same time, and following that designation, verification of a miracle “attributed specifically to the intercession of the person prayed to, is needed,” he adds, for them to be declared Blessed. Proof of a second miracle is needed to earn the official stamp of Saint. “The church uses the terminology Canonization, because there is a ‘Canon’ or list of official names who are declared Saint,” Farrell points out. “So when a person is Canonized, they are added to the Canon of the names already declared a Saint.”

Like Farrell, those who remember Atkinson’s compassionate and determined spirit surely count him as one already.

extraORDINARY: The Bill Atkinson Story, PBS, Check Local Listings