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Meet the Civil War veteran who helped St. Damien in Hawaii

Joseph Dutton

Public Domain

Larry Peterson - published on 11/27/21

Servant of God Joseph Dutton: He stepped off the boat at Molokai and said to Father Damien, "I am here to help." He stayed for the rest of his life.

Ira Barnes Dutton was born in Stowe, Vermont, on April 27, 1843. Ira grew up in an entirely Protestant environment, taught Sunday school, and was working in a bookstore in Wisconsin when the Civil War began. He remembered how “the streets were lined with cheering crowds, bands were playing, and flags flying.” Ira enlisted in September 1861 and served four years with the 13th Wisconsin Regiment.

The 13th Wisconsin saw little fighting during the war, but it did enable Ira to demonstrate his inborn leadership skills. He eventually was promoted to Captain. He considered the military a career, but as the numbers of personnel decreased after the war, he realized that his chances for advancement were very slim. He left the army in 1866 and spent the next 20 years working at different jobs. He also married an unfaithful woman, and the marriage lasted a short time. He never even mentioned her name. He filed divorce papers in 1881.

Ira worked in cemeteries, ran a distillery in Alabama, and moved to Memphis to work on the railroads. In 1875 he took a job with the War department processing claims against the government. Ira was successful in all his undertakings and was an upstanding citizen. But at night, he would stay home and drink, and he became an alcoholic. He would say, “I never injured anyone but myself.” He quit drinking in1876, and he never drank again.

Baptized on his 40th birthday

Ira fell away from religion during the war. But he did become interested in Catholicism. He had become friends with some Catholics, and their influence spurred him to want to learn more. He acquired a catechism and began to study. He was received into the Catholic church on April 27, 1883. The occasion also marked his 40th birthday. He changed his name to Joseph, who he greatly admired, quit his job with the government, and set out to begin a “new life.”

Joseph desired to do penance for his “wild years” and sinfulness. He headed to Our Lady of Gethsemane Monastery in Kentucky. This was the home of the Trappists Monks, and he was determined to do repentance for the rest of his life. After 20 months, he realized he needed to do penitential action and not penitential contemplation. He knew about Father Damien and his apostolate for lepers at Molokai in Hawaii. He left the Trappist Monastery and, with the blessings of the Abbott, began preparing to leave for Molokai. He remained lifelong friends with the Trappists.

Meeting Father Damien of Molokai

Joseph Dutton arrived in Molokai sometime in 1886. When he arrived, he remembered how Father Damien greeted the new patients with Hansen’s Disease (Leprosy). When Father Damien approached him, Joseph said, “My name is Joseph Dutton; I have come to help, and I have come to stay.”

Father Damien told him he could not pay him, and Joseph replied, “I do not care about that.” He would stay for the rest of his life.

President Theodore Roosevelt admired him

Joseph was a member of the Secular Franciscan Order. He was often called Brother Joseph. He began writing letters to officials and people of influence, seeking help for those afflicted with leprosy. He would explain how life was for them on the island. President Theodore Roosevelt expressed his admiration and respect for Brother Joseph, one of his frequent contacts. Joseph worked side by side with Father Damien for two years until the holy priest passed away. Before his death in 1889,  Father Damien said, “I can die now. Brother Joseph will take care of my orphans.”

Brother Joseph served as administrator, carpenter, repairman, and even medic bandaging wounds and taking care of the sick and dying. He had saved the money he received from two pensions and used it for the lepers. He spent 44 years caring for the young boys and men who had Hansen’s Disease.

“A happy place – a happy life.”

Brother Joseph Dutton died of leprosy in Honolulu on March 26, 1931. He was buried in the grave next to St. Damien at St. Philomena Church in Kalawao. Before his death, he was quoted as saying, “It has been a happy place – a happy life.” 

President Theodore Roosevelt, aware of Brother Joseph’s military service and his selfless years on Molokai, ordered the U.S. Pacific Fleet to pass Molokai and dip their colors in salute to the heroic patriot.

The Joseph Dutton Guild is spearheading the effort to continue the cause for canonization and the US bishops’ conference has recently given the go-ahead for the cause to proceed.

See the full list of US residents in the process of canonization here:

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