The Reverend Thomas “Aidan” Butler, O.Carm., is celebrating 70 years as a Carmelite priest. Many of those years have been spent in support of Salpointe Catholic High School and living at Salpointe’s Carmelite Priory.
Fr. Tom joined the Carmelites at the age of 13 when he was encouraged by a nun to attend high school at the Carmelite Seminary in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Fr. Tom was ordained a priest on June 6, 1950, at the age of 24. He will turn 95 on February 17, 2021, and is the senior member of the Carmelite Province of the Most Pure Heart of Mary. Though not quite the oldest Carmelite, Fr. Tom has been a professed Carmelite longer than any other living member.
Throughout his life, Fr. Tom has been known to skydive, hunt, paint, photograph, and write more sermons than he can count. This remarkable priest has worked at 10 high schools and parishes across the country, leaving behind an amazing legacy everywhere he has gone.
Tom was born in Pittsburgh, PA, to a family of athletes. “Everyone in the family played sports! My dad was a professional football player back before there were these big professional teams,” says Fr. Tom. “He was known to be outstanding! My younger brother Jack played professional ball for the Pittsburgh Steelers and he was among their best.” Jack Butler was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2012. The Butler family is still very close friends with the Rooney family, founders and owners of the Steelers, and Fr. Tom can often be seen sporting Steelers attire.
Yes, the Butlers were a family of athletes, and Fr. Tom was no different. Athletics have always been important to Fr. Tom. “Wherever I was stationed with the Carmelites, I took athletics as a big part of my life,” says Fr. Tom. “It was always my forte. I wanted to do the best I could. The kids gave me the inspiration to do my best. We did well wherever I was and won championships.”
As the Assistant Athletic Director at Mount Carmel High School, Chicago, in the 1950s, Fr. Tom was there “during the glory years when they won three city championships in a row. It was a blast.” Later, as the Athletic Director, Fr. Tom led Mt. Carmel to two more city championships, in football and basketball, in the same year.
Fr. Tom came to Salpointe just three years after the Carmelites took over running the school. He served as Salpointe’s Athletic Director from 1956 to 1962, when the Lancers also won many championships. Those years were among the highlights of his life. “I had many appointments with the Carmelites,” he said, “but Salpointe was one of the best of them.”
The Carmelites lived at Sacred Heart Church in military Quonset huts until 1956 when the Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Priory was built. Fr. Tom was the cross-bearer when Bishop Daniel Gercke came to bless the new Priory. “When I arrived,” he says, “there was hardly anything there at all! I watched the buildings come to life.” During his time with the Lancers, Fr. Tom had a role in the construction of the stadium, gymnasium and six tennis courts. New facilities were built and new traditions were formed.
During his time at Salpointe, Fr. Tom taught geometry and religion. He also moderated the Lettermen’s Club and coached track and cross country, often running alongside the students. In 1956 Fr. Tom helped to coach the cross country team to the school’s first League and Division championships and he still receives letters from those athletes he coached over 60 years ago.
Later, serving as the pastor of St. Bernadette Parish in Clear Lake, TX, Fr. Tom came to know many of the local astronauts and parishioners who worked for NASA. “They always took something of mine or the parish’s up into space,” he recalls. Fr. Tom sent the first Carmelite scapular into space. He also made the astronauts Eucharistic Ministers so they could give each other Holy Communion while in space. While offering the opening prayer at an annual Space Agency dinner, Fr. Tom mentioned “the first man on the moon.” After dinner, a man approached and said, “I am that first man on the moon.” Fr. Tom was shaking hands with Neil Armstrong (Catholic Exchange, 2007).
During his time in Texas, Fr. Tom wrote a weekly article for the parish bulletin. One parishioner decided to collect two years of stories and sermons and publish them as a book, The Good Word, which continues to provide inspiration to readers today. Fr. Tom has copies of his countless sermons covering an entire wall in his room. He occasionally sends them off to friends or parishes and some have even been made available online, by popular demand, on the St. Thomas the Apostle Parish website.
Fr. Tom retired to Tucson in 1998 and, along with his friend Br. Tom Conlon, O.Carm., has attended every softball game and prayed with the team before every practice. He was inducted into Salpointe’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1995 and remains one of the Lancers’ greatest fans. “I can’t tell you how moved I was to be named to the Sports Hall of Fame,” he said. “I’ll never forget that experience.”
Fr. Tom’s faith has been fueled by a lifelong devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. “She is the beginning and the end of everything,” he says. “I ask for her aid and help.”
A man of many interests, Fr. Tom has also enjoyed photography and painting. He used to paint the members of his house and hang their images on the wall for them to see.
Always an avid sportsman, Fr. Tom used to take a jeep out to go hunting in the mountains with Br. Tom. “The Two Toms,” as they became known around Tucson, also went skydiving together three times, back when solo skydiving was the only way to jump out of a plane. “We went skydiving until the Prior found out,” he says with a chuckle. “We didn’t go anymore after that.”
Fr. Tom Butler has lived a long life, full of adventure and community. His energy and enthusiasm are remarkable after 70 faith-filled years as a Carmelite priest. When asked about the eventual journey to Heaven, Fr. Tom thought he might not become one of the well-known saints. Laughing, he said, “I might just sneak in Heaven’s back door.”