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As His Cause Moves Forward… Joseph Dutton’s 180th Birthday Celebrated

May 29, 2023 Featured Today No Comments

By PEGGY MOEN

Bishop Larry Silva of Honolulu was invited to Stowe, Vt., to help celebrate the 180th birthday of Joseph Dutton, according to a report in The Hawaii Catholic Herald by Patrick Downes, editor. If canonized, Dutton will be the third saint honored for service at the Hansen’s disease settlement in Kalaupapa, Molokai, the other two being St. Damien de Veuster, canonized in 2009, and St. Marianne Cope, canonized in 2012.
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. 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.
It is for those Molokai years, however — 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.
Physician Arthur Mouritz described Dutton as follows, when he arrived on Molokai on July 29, 1886, at the age of 43:
“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.”
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, whose family moved to Janesville, Wis., when he was a toddler, served in the Thirteenth Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry as a quartermaster during the Civil War, attaining 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.”
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.
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.
Under the influence of Catholic friends in Memphis, Dutton decided that Catholicism offered him the best means of atonement. He began to read 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.
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 victims of Hansen’s Disease were banished to Molokai under Hawaii’s 1865 isolation law, continuing to serve until his death from old age on March 26, 1931, shortly before his 88th birthday.
According to the Hawaii Catholic Herald, the weekend of activities organized by Blessed Sacrament Parish included a presentation of the artwork on the church walls depicting Dutton’s life, and a screening of the movie, The Wind and the Reckoning, a film based on the true story of a Hawaiian cowboy named Koolau in 1893 who contracted Hansen’s disease, but refused to go Kalaupapa, which led to an armed clash with the white authorities.
Other activities included a banquet with Hawaiian entertainment and an update on the status of Dutton’s canonization cause.
Part of the official sainthood process was scheduled to take place in Stowe that weekend, according to Bishop Silva, with the depositions of Vermonters by three officials for the cause for Dutton’s beatification and canonization, Msgr. Robert Sarno, Fr. Mark Gantley, and Roxanne Torres. Msgr. Sarno is the bishop’s delegate for the cause, Fr. Gantley is the promoter of justice, and Torres is the notary.
If any readers have any relevant information about Dutton’s life or about devotion to him, they are invited to send it to: sainthood
fordutton@rcchawaii.org

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