God gives us the gift of remarkable people to remind us that mankind can be so much more than it often is. One of these remarkable people is Brother Joseph Dutton. Brother Dutton was born Ira Dutton on April 27, 1847 on a family farm in Stowe, Vermont. When he was only four years old, his family moved to Janesville, Wisconsin. Ira was an intelligent boy and industrious student. He worked hard to be able to attend college. After college the Civil War began and he joined the Army on the side of the North. He was assigned duties as a quartermaster. This not only kept him out of battle, but also provided training for what God would call him to do. At the end of the war he met a woman that he fell in love with. They were married, but sadly she left him after a year and asked for a divorce. This really upset Ira because he loved his wife and took his marriage vows very seriously.
Ira took a job where he disinterred the bodies of Civil War soldiers from the battlefield graves to be able to move them to the new National Cemeteries. Ira knew this was an important job, but it was also gruesome and depressing. To deal with his depressing job, and the separation from his wife, Ira began drinking heavily. He was able to remain sober for the day job, but was usually drunk for the rest of the time. He did this for about ten years. Ira saw that alcohol was destroying him, so when our Nation was celebrating the 100th year of the Declaration of Independence in 1876, Ira declared independence from alcohol. At this time he made a decision to get right with God and he began searching out different religions. Ira decided to become a Roman Catholic. When he was baptized, he took on the new name of Joseph. He then moved to a Trappist Monastery in Gethsemane, Kentucky to live and pray and work with the monks. Joseph never took formal vows. He left after almost two years knowing that God was calling him to a life of serving others.
When Joseph attended a religious conference he heard about the work that Father Damian was doing with the Lepers in Hawaii. Joseph immediately felt called to go to Hawaii and help Father Damian. Joseph felt this was a way that he could lead a life of penance and also help others. He immediately began making preparations to go to Molokai. He contacted both Church and Civil authorities to obtain permission to go. He never thought to contact Father Damian. Joseph was set and headed for the long journey to Molokai. The day that he arrived on Molokai, July 19, 1886, a very surprised Father Damian greeted this man. Joseph told Father Damian that he had come to devote the rest of his life to serving the lepers and helping Father Damian. One can only imagine how pleased Father Damian was. Father Damian had made numerous requests to both Church and Civil leaders to send him help. None of them seemed to be able to. Now, Joseph appears and becomes Father Damian’s right hand man (and later successor). Even though Joseph was not part of a religious community, from that day on Father Damian called Joseph, Brother Joseph. He has been known as that ever since.
The day after his arrival, Brother Joseph learned how to clean and care for the lepers wounds. This was quite a hard thing for most people to do since lepers are very contagious and at that time it was a disease that ended in death after grueling suffering. Brother Joseph found that the time he had spent disinterring Civil War bodied had prepared him to be able to deal with seeing and treating the lepers wounds. Brother Joseph proved to be a hard and tireless worker. Even though he and Father Damian had quite different personalities, they became very close. They both shared the same desire to serve God’s people who suffered from leprosy. They also both shared a strong love of God. Father Damian once said of Brother Joseph, “..a middle aged, well educated man. He resides here with me and as a true brother helps me caring for the sick. He too, though not a priest, finds his comfort in the Blessed Sacrament. You will admire with me the almighty power of Grace in favor of my new companion.”
Even though Father Damian knew he was dying from leprosy himself, his new friend brought him new hope that the colony would continue. Both of them worked hard together to make the leper colony as good as it could become. On April 15, 1889, Father Damian died from the disease. They had a funeral mass of celebration (something that they did very often with each death in the colony). After his death, the full responsibility of the Leper Colony fell upon Brother Joseph. He was thankful for his training as an Army quartermaster. It helped him in making sure the Colony had all the supplies that it needed. Brother Joseph was also responsible for significant building projects in the community. Finally another priest was sent to the colony, Father Lambert Carmardy to help.
In 1898 the United States formally annexed Hawaii as a U.S. territory. This made Brother Joseph very happy. Brother Joseph was a true Patriot and from the moment he came to Molokai, he hoisted the US Flag every morning and brought it down every evening. He gave the lepers in the colony a sense of his own patriotism. Now this land was US soil and they all rejoiced. The annexation also brought more help to the colony. The government sent funds and help to improve life in the Colony.
In 1908, Brother Dutton heard that the US White Fleet would be coming past Hawaii. Brother Dutton wished that somehow the Fleet would sail past his Colony. President Theodore Roosevelt heard of this wish and sent a Presidential Order to Admiral Charles Stillman Perry to go by Molokai and give a military salute to the Colony. The ships came in battle formation and each ship dipped their colors in salute and Brother Joseph and the Colony dipped their flag in salute for each ship. It was a huge moment for Brother Joseph and the Colony to receive such an honor from the President and the US government.
Even though Brother Joseph was living a life of isolation from the world, he corresponded with many friends. Word of Father Damian’s death and all that Brother Joseph was doing reached out to the world with great interest. Brother Joseph received many letters (and donations) and requests for pictures of him. Brother Joseph was never interested in making himself a hero. He responded to his popularity by saying, “All these writers make me out a hero, while I don’t feel a bit like one. I don’t claim to have done any great things; I am merely trying in a small way to help my neighbor and my own soul”.
After serving almost forty five years at the Colony, Brother Joseph Dutton died in 1931. He was mourned and missed by all in the Colony. World leaders paid tribute to him but one of the best is by President Calvin Coolidge. He said. “Whenever his story is told, men will pause to worship. His faith, his work, his self sacrifice appeal to people because there is always something of the same spirit in them. Therein lies the moral power of the world. He realized a vision that we all have.”
In 1949, Blessed Sacrament Church was built on the land that Brother Joseph’s family farm occupied in Stowe Vermont. It has beautiful Murals painted by Andre Girard on the outside walls of the Church. These murals tell the story of Brother Joseph and the Leper Colony on Molokai. The people of Stowe wanted to tell the story of their remarkable native, Brother Joseph Dutton and to give him honor. I believe that we all should tell the story and give honor to Brother Joseph by the way we live our lives. As President Coolidge said, “he realized a vision that we all have”.
Note: On June 23rd, 2015 the Diocese of Honolulu took the first of many steps to Sainthood for Brother Joseph. They created the Brother Joseph Dutton Guild to gather information for the cause.