With All Hallow’s Eve, All Saint’s Day, and All Soul’s Day this weekend, we have a fabulous occasion to reflect on our engagement with saints and consider what it means to live a holy life. From the illustrious fighters to the meek little flowers, examples abound of the myriad ways to seek holiness and communion with Christ.
Of course, the role of saints goes beyond identifying with The Story of a Soul or meditating on the Summa Theologiae. We know they are in heaven, receiving and transmitting our prayers. The relationships we form with them can be among the most profound and intimate in our spiritual lives.
My own encounters with saints took an unexpected yet providential turn this summer while researching in Hawaii for my history honors thesis. Some preliminary scholarly research on Saint Damien of Molokai led me to the University Archives, where I fell in love with Brother Joseph Dutton—a lay missionary and convert to Catholicism who served the Hansen’s disease patients of Molokai for 44 years—after reading his personal papers and taking him up as the subject of my project.
My interest in Dutton’s life and quest for holiness grew wings on a pilgrimage to Kalaupapa—a tiny peninsula on the northern side of Molokai that produced two saints, Father Damien, Mother Marianne Cope, and thousands of victims. To condense a long story, our tour guide connected me with an army psychiatrist on Oahu who graciously invited me to join “Team Dutton,” the Diocese of Honolulu’s Committee for the Cause of Joseph Dutton.
We are in very early stages of our initiation, which includes fundraising, gathering information, and fostering devotion. In hopes of inspiring devotion among some of you, dear readers, I am sharing Dutton’s story.
Born Ira Barnes Dutton on April 27, 1843, in Stowe, Vermont, Dutton grew up in a Protestant home in Janesville, Wisconsin. He worked for a local newspaper as a child and as a Sunday school teacher and bookstore clerk as an older teen.
At the dawn of the Civil War, he enlisted in the 13th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment, earning the rank of Captain during his service from 1861-1866. Dutton’s regiment saw little combat, but as he traveled across the Midwest, he honed his leadership skills and built a reputation among his superiors and fellow soldiers for being respectable, thoughtful, and dependable. During this time, Dutton also met a woman in Ohio whom he married, but she was an adulteress and ended up abandoning him after spending all of his money. Dutton spoke very little of the marriage in his writings.
For the 20 years following his discharge, Dutton worked a variety of jobs, including a government job in a cemetery, overseeing a distillery owned by friends, and working on a railroad. Lurking behind his outward appearance of success was a dark secret: alcoholism. He estimated one night in July 1876 that in 15 years, he drank 15 barrels of whiskey, and after that night, he quit drinking.
Dutton entered the Catholic Church on April 27, 1883, his 40th birthday, and took the name “Joseph.” He sought atonement for his past sins—drinking, divorce, and others kept in the silence of his heart—and believed the Church would guide him towards the fullest life of penance.
He spent almost two years discerning a vocation to religious life at Our Lady of Gethsemani Monastery in Kentucky before leaving to go in search of a different order. It was in a Redemptorist convent in New Orleans that he first read of Father Damien. The brief newspaper article about Damien’s mission work immediately struck Dutton, who ventured to Notre Dame to interview Professor Charles Warren Stoddard and Father Daniel Hudson, CSC, editor of Ave Maria magazine, both of whom spent time traveling to and writing about Kalaupapa and Catholicism in Hawaii. With their blessing, he set off for Hawaii from San Francisco in the summer of 1886.
Dutton arrived in the islands on July 22, 1886, and spent several days in Honolulu obtaining the proper permission to enter the settlement. Dutton firmly refused to accept any pay for his work.
Father Damien—then a patient himself—greeted him as “Brother” on July 29, 1886, and from that moment until Damien’s death on April 15, 1889, the two maintained an intimate friendship. Dutton dressed Damien’s sores, recorded a statement about the priest’s purity, and worked tirelessly to honor his memory and legacy in following years. He led the movement to name the main road “Damien Road” and wrote both personal letters and newspaper columns about his sacrifice. Included in Dutton’s collection at Notre Dame are strips of Damien’s cloak, other liturgical vestments, and several finger towels that he saved in envelopes.
In his 44 years in Kalaupapa, Dutton touched thousands of lives through his selfless service. He headed the Baldwin Home for Boys on the Kalawao side of the peninsula, where he cared physically and spiritually for male patients and orphan boys. From laboring as a carpenter and administrator, to comforting the dying, to coaching baseball, Dutton immersed himself in his community without accepting credit; to him, work was always about answering God’s call instead of personal fame or selfish desire.
Dutton made gestures both grand and minute for the patients, including clipping questionable material from communal magazines, arranging for the boys to have baseball uniforms so they could look like real players, and requesting the US Navy’s Sixteenth Fleet to sail around Kalaupapa. Patients revered him for his jovial nature and seemingly endless patience.
His daily habits also reflected a deep dedication to his work and faith. He lived humbly in a three-room cottage with a small rotation of denim shirts and jeans, only drank water or milk, and never accepted pay or his army pension, opting instead to donate to the settlement and other causes on the mainland. He received the Eucharist nearly every day and prayed often, especially for the countless distant friends with whom he corresponded, and wrote often about his devotion to Saint Joseph, his namesake and patron.
Dutton died at age 88 on March 26, 1931, in Honolulu, one of but three times he was away from Kalawao in 44 years. He requested to be buried at Damien’s foot, and his grave is indeed several yards away. During my visit in August, it was adorned with several leis and flowers.
The path to sainthood is indeed a long one. Whether he is ultimately canonized or not, Dutton’s life offers us a beautiful story of redemption, faith, fortitude, and selflessness. Several Committee members invoke his example frequently and with success in their counsel of veterans and their families.
As a senior stressing over postgraduate life, I have found great comfort and friendship in Dutton. To see my faith and studies converge has been incredible, and working with the Committee has been a humbling experience and an incredible blessing.
I pray to and for Brother Joseph Dutton often, and I invite you to do the same. For prayer cards, a copy of his memoirs, or more information, email the Committee at JosephDutton@rcchawaii.org, or drop me a line.
Lilia Draime is a senior history major with minors in constitutional studies and philosophy, religion, and literature. She enjoys discussing holistic medicine and Brother Joseph Dutton over red wine. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: This post was updated on July 24, 2015.