Plenty of people had a high school teacher they admired, but few make a movie about that teacher. Fewer still think someone who taught them might have been a saint.
For Tom Farrell, executive producer of ExtraOrdinary: The Bill Atkinson Story (5 p.m. Sunday, WHYY12), the thought that the quadriplegic priest he had for some religion classes at Monsignor Bonner High School in Drexel Hill might one day be a candidate for canonization didn’t occur till sometime after the Rev. William Atkinson’s death in 2006 at the age of 60. Now, though, he thinks it’s appropriate that the film, which is playing on PBS stations across the country, is airing in Philadelphia on Nov. 1, which Roman Catholics and many other Christians celebrate as All Saints' Day.
In 2017, then-Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput formally opened Atkinson’s cause for sainthood with the approval of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the acceptance of his case for review by the Vatican.
That “this was a guy that, you know, lived amongst us ... and now is considered to be a [possible] saint, that’s flat out awesome in my mind,” said Farrell, CEO of Radnor-based WorkShop Content Studios, whose past productions include the Golf Channel’s The Haney Project and Netflix’s Basketball or Nothing.
ExtraOrdinary is “very personal,” said Farrell, who graduated in 1985 from Bonner, now Monsignor Bonner and Archbishop Prendergast Catholic High School, in Upper Darby.
In a bit under a half-hour, it tells the story of Atkinson, a 1963 graduate of Bonner who had begun studying for the priesthood when, on a February day in 1965, he was paralyzed in a sledding accident. With a broken neck and a severely damaged spinal cord, the 19-year-old was considered so unlikely to live that he was allowed to take his first vows, a step in the process of becoming a priest that he hadn’t yet reached.
Even after he survived, and was eventually able to continue his theological studies at Villanova, his inability to ever serve Mass without assistance made his vocation a long shot. Nine years later, it would require a papal dispensation for Atkinson to become what’s believed to be the first man with quadriplegia admitted to the Roman Catholic priesthood.
Farrell’s brother, Mike, who was both one of Atkinson’s former students and one of the people who helped care for him, is interviewed in the film, as are some of Atkinson’s siblings, friends, and fellow Augustinians. They attest to the priest’s cheerful acceptance of his condition and to the example he set for others.
“He had an unbelievable demeanor about him,” Tom Farrell said. “It was very calming, and authoritative, and he had command over the classroom better than any other teacher I ever had. Because you just didn’t mess with him.”
He also had a sense of humor.
He was “quick-witted, extremely funny, always ready for a laugh and ... loved to be around people,” Farrell said.
The next step in Atkinson’s candidacy for sainthood would be if the pope, after a study by the church of the priest’s life and works, were to declare him “venerable.”
“I know Rome is interviewing many people in this area right now ... extensive interviews that speak to the character of Father Atkinson and what he was all about,” Farrell said. “They’re in the process now of talking to family and friends and students and caretakers — anybody that had an interaction with Father Bill on a really deep level, they want to talk to."
Atkinson “inspired me to try harder, to live better,” said Farrell, who kept in touch with the priest until his death. “If he could carry his cross in life, that was enough for me to take on anything that came my way.”
ExtraOrdinary. 5 p.m. Sunday, WHYY12.