“I wish to guard you against having too high an estimate of the work here. Work performed with a good intention to accomplish the Will of the Almighty God, for His glory, is the same in one place as another. One’s Molokai can be anywhere” — Brother Joseph Dutton.
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“He wore a blue-denim shirt, which fitted his well-knit, slim, lithe, muscular figure. He stood about five feet seven inches tall; had dark brown hair and grayish blue eyes; a low voice, placid features, and a pleasant smile. He was reserved and thoughtful, had nothing to say about the reason for seeking seclusion and work at Molokai, and turning his back on the world” — physician Arthur Mouritz, quoted in Holy Man: Father Damien of Molokai, by Gavan Daws (University of Hawaii Press: 1973), about Brother Joseph Dutton’s arrival on Molokai, July 29, 1886, at the age of 43.
The Civil War “Company Descriptive Book” gives the same basic details about Ira B. (later Joseph) Dutton’s appearance, except that it says his hair was light.
Dutton’s road from service in the 13th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, Company B, to 40-plus years on Molokai was as rocky as the shores of the Kalaupapa peninsula, the leper settlement’s home.
But it is for those Molokai years — almost three of them spent with Fr. Damien before his 1889 death — that Dutton is best known, and that could provide the best evidence of his heroic sanctity.
Bishop Larry Silva of the Diocese of Honolulu told The Wanderer that Dutton’s sainthood cause cannot now be described as being underway. The diocese is doing “preliminary work,” he said — looking for evidence of widespread devotion to Brother Dutton and biographical proof of his holy life and exceptional virtue, and his “intercessory power.”
A more intense investigation has begun, said the bishop, because three people — an Army psychiatrist, a priest-psychologist from New York State, and a priest of the Diocese of Honolulu —independently approached him to say that they thought Dutton should be proposed for sainthood.
As to interest in Dutton’s possible cause, “it seems to be gathering,” said the bishop, but is not yet sufficient to meet the criteria of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Nothing has yet been submitted to Rome.
If any readers have any relevant information about Dutton’s life or about devotion to him, they are invited to send it to: joseph
Should his cause succeed, Dutton will be the third Catholic missionary to Molokai to be canonized, following Fr. Damien (1840-1889), who was canonized in 2009, and Mother Marianne Cope (1838-1918), who was canonized in 2012. He will be the first U.S. Civil War veteran to be raised to the altars.
Dutton’s earlier years of “sins and errors” — his words — following the Civil War remain somewhat shrouded in mystery, but it is known that he married someone against the advice of his friends, the marriage failed, and he drank heavily, a barrel of whiskey a year, by his own estimate.
During the Civil War, he served as a quartermaster and attained the rank of first lieutenant. His regiment saw little combat, but, writes Charles J. Dutton (no relation) in The Samaritans of Molokai (Dodd, Mead and Company, New York: 1932), “the function assigned to the 13th [Volunteer Infantry] usually was that of holding positions that other units had won — not an unimportant job, since often the loss of such a position would have brought disaster.”
He added that the 13th was, through garrison and picket duty, associated with Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, Chickamauga, and Sherman’s March to the Sea.
Dutton’s work during the Civil War helped him develop skills in leadership, medicine, and carpentry that would serve him well on Molokai.
Shortly after his mustering out, Dutton married in 1866 in Ohio. Also according to Charles Dutton, he didn’t seem to have any regular employment at that time. Nonetheless, his wife “ran up bills — bills that he had to borrow money to pay.” She was unfaithful to him a number of times — Dutton’s friends had told him before the marriage that she had an unsavory reputation. He consistently forgave her unfaithfulness, but to no avail.
He was in Memphis in January 1867 looking for work and his wife ran off to New York City with another man at the end of that year, according to The Samaritans of Molokai. Dutton apparently continued to hope for a reconciliation, but that never happened. He sued for divorce in 1881 and obtained it.
His work following the Civil War included two years of gathering the Union dead and arranging their burials in national cemeteries.
The 1870 U.S. Census cites his home as Memphis and his employment as railroad clerk. He worked from 1875-1883 for the government, settling war claims.
During much of this time Dutton drank heavily, which — among other unspecified matters — started to weigh on his conscience. He took a pledge to drink no more in 1876, and began to think of reparations for his misdeeds.
Born in Stowe, Vt., April 27, 1843 and raised in Janesville, Wis., Dutton had a Christian upbringing. He attended two different Sunday schools, mostly a Baptist school but also a Methodist one, according to The Samaritans of Molokai.
But as he realized a need to do penance in his adult life, he began to see the Catholic Church as the ideal means of accomplishing that. He began to study the catechism.
Dutton was baptized at St. Peter’s Church in Memphis on his 40th birthday. Dominican Fr. Joseph Kelly — who had nursed the sick during several yellow fever epidemics — baptized him. In a tie-in with Dutton’s Civil War background, his godmother was Mrs. Benedict J. Semmes, who was married to a cousin of Confederate Admiral Raphael Semmes.
He took the baptismal name of Joseph because of his great devotion to the foster father of the Lord. He soon began using Joseph as his given name as well.
He is universally known as Brother Joseph Dutton, but he never was a religious, remaining simply a layman for all his life. Fr. Damien began referring to him as “Brother Dutton,” and the name stuck.
Dutton’s road to Molokai was as indirect as the path that winds up the pali (cliff) on Molokai. After being received into the Catholic Church, he stayed at the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky, for almost two years. Ultimately, he decided he was called to an active, not a contemplative, vocation.
Dutton traveled with a Redemptorist priest friend to New Orleans where, in a convent reading room, he discovered a Catholic newspaper’s account of Damien’s work on Molokai.
“It was a new subject and attracted me wonderfully,” he wrote years later, according to Gavan Daws.
“After weighing it for a while I became convinced that it would suit my wants — for labor, for a penitential life, and for seclusion as well as complete separation from scenes of all past experiences.”
And: “Yet I was not looking to hide, exactly; it was a good deal the idea of ‘beginning again’.”
He wondered, however, if he could make himself useful at the Molokai settlement.
This practical side led him to consult with Professor Charles Warren Stoddard of the University of Notre Dame, who had traveled to Molokai and met Damien, to see if his services would be of use there. Stoddard assured him they would be.
Dutton reached Molokai in 1886, 20 years after the first leprosy sufferers were banished to Molokai under Hawaii’s 1865 isolation law.
Damien, wrote Daws, “took to him immediately,” and the priest described Dutton as “truly an exemplary self devoting man.”
Daws wrote that Dutton was “extraordinarily industrious, and always calm: preternaturally so. No one ever heard him raise his voice or saw him lose his temper.”
After Fr. Damien came to Molokai in 1873, conditions for those suffering from leprosy (now known as Hansen’s disease) began to improve. Initially, misery and lawlessness had prevailed, with inadequate shelter and supplies and the relatively strong preying upon the weak.
Dr. Mouritz referred to Dutton’s “seeking seclusion and work at Molokai.” But his decades there involved more work than they did any real seclusion, as he bandaged, counseled, and instructed victims of leprosy, further improving their living conditions.
Dutton managed the Baldwin Home for Boys, established in 1895 for the leprosy victims; the Brothers of the Sacred Heart also served there. Similarly, Mother Marianne and the Franciscan Sisters ran the Bishop Home for Girls.
During Dutton’s years on Molokai, the patient population there hit its peak: The National Park Service web site (nps.gov/kala) says that it reached 1,100 people between 1888 and 1902 when the isolation laws were vigorously enforced.
Conditions improved materially in the settlement after Hawaii became a U.S. territory in 1898.
Dutton remained an ardent patriot throughout his life, holding a membership in the Grand Army of the Republic.
At Dutton’s request and by President Theodore Roosevelt’s order, the Great White Fleet in 1908 diverged from its course and sailed along the Kalaupapa peninsula to salute him and the residents. The battleships dipped their flags in respect as they went by.
When he was 80, Dutton received a letter of appreciation from President Warren G. Harding. He wrote to thank the president for his “beautiful letter.”
Dutton kept up a mountainous correspondence. The National Park Service web site says his address book contained 4,000 names and bags of mail delivered to him at times weighed up to 50 pounds.
Dutton lived to be almost 88 years old, dying on March 26, 1931 in a hospital in Honolulu. In his four decades on Molokai, the only time he left was when his failing health forced him to go the hospital.
Not long afterwards, in 1946, sulfone drugs came to Molokai and proved effective in treating Hansen’s disease.
Hawaii’s isolation laws were not lifted until 1969.
Brother Joseph Dutton is buried at St. Philomena Catholic Church Cemetery, Kalaupapa.