Remembering Thomas Buckley, S.J.

Thomas Buckley, S.J., retired professor of history who taught at LMU from 1973 until 1998 and again from 2012 to his retirement in 2017, died on Nov. 8, 2017, in Los Gatos, California. He was 78 years old. 

Buckley was a specialist in American religious history. Among his books and numerous articles are two volumes that deal with church and state issues in Virginia, a subject at the heart of the foundation of the United States since the beginning: “Establishing Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Statute in Virginia” and “Church and State in Revolutionary Virginia, 1776—1787.” He also wrote “The Great Catastrophe of My Life: Divorce in the Old Dominion,” a book about the practice of divorce, family life and the institution of marriage in Virginia from revolutionary times to the Civil War.

“Fr. Buckley served as a pioneer examining religion in the early republic, pointing to its importance when it was receiving much less attention than it has subsequently received,” wrote Jonathan Den Hartog, chair of the Department of History at the University of Northwestern, St. Paul, in a blog post that memorialized Buckley. “He enlarged our understanding of religion in early American politics. Through doing outstanding work, he reconstructed an important part of the American experience.”

After earning a master’s degree at LMU, he pursued his Ph.D. at UC Santa Barbara, and taught at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, the College of the Holy Cross, Boston College and Santa Clara University. He also was a visiting professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. Born in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Buckley was the youngest child in a military family that moved several times. He entered the Society of Jesus, in the California province, in August 1957 and was ordained in June 1970. He was a member of the Society of Jesus for 58 years and a priest for 47 years.

Robert Caro, S.J., retired LMU professor of English and former vice president for mission and ministry, remembered Buckley as a person “who had a knack for making friends.” Caro and Buckley were ordained together. Many students remained devoted to Buckley after graduating from LMU, Caro said, and called on him to preside at their weddings and the baptisms of their children. Buckley’s skills were legendary when it came to organizing trips and planning itineraries. While traveling once in Spain, Caro recalled, Buckley had to return to the United States for a family emergency. His detailed notes and instructions allowed his friends to continue their trip as if Buckley were still leading the excursion. “If Tom hadn’t been a Jesuit, he could’ve been a travel agent. He was great at planning trips, and he loved to travel.”

Buckley is survived by his brother, Mike Buckley, S.J., of the Sacred Heart Jesuit Center in Los Gatos, California, and many nieces and nephews.