Br. Joseph Dutton, a Saint on Molokai?

Updated on March 22, 2019
Bede le Venerable profile image

Bede is an artist with a long time interest in the lives of the saints.

With a flair for business and two pensions to his name, Joseph Dutton’s future looked like easy sailing. For heaven’s sake, then, why would he abandon his easy life to work at a leper colony? He did not go for pay, but to repair. His desire was simple; “to do some good for my neighbor and at the same time make it my penitentiary in doing penance for my sins and errors.” He wanted to make amends for the years he spent in alcoholism, a bad marriage, and unknown sins. Did his 44 years at the leper colony of Kalaupapa, Molokai, make him a saint? Let’s take a closer look at his story.

Br. Joseph Dutton of Molokai
Br. Joseph Dutton of Molokai | Source

Early Life

Joseph was born Ira Barnes Dutton in Stowe, Vermont on April 27, 1843, of Episcopalian parents. His family moved to Wisconsin, where he worked at a bookstore and taught Sunday school in his late teens. When the Civil War broke out, he enlisted in the Union Army. Around this time, he started drinking and fell away from his childhood religion.

His unit saw little action, but he earned the respect of his superiors, attaining to the post of Captain by war’s end. After his discharge, he had a government job relocating dead soldiers to the Arlington Cemetery. Later he was an overseer in a distillery, worked on a railroad, and finally labored for the War Department settling claims. Despite his outward success, dark clouds loomed overhead.

A woman that Ira married during the war turned into an unbridled spendthrift and adulteress. He divorced her after she ran off with another man. He turned to whiskey to soothe his aches, gradually becoming a serious alcoholic. One summer night in 1876, he reckoned how much whiskey pour down his throat: 15 barrels in 15 years. That very night he resolved never to drink again and he kept his promise.

Dutton at 20; during the Civil War he enlisted in the 13th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment.
Dutton at 20; during the Civil War he enlisted in the 13th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment. | Source

Spiritual Awakening

Ira experienced a spiritual renewal after he quit drinking. He entered the Catholic Church on his 40th birthday, 1883, and changed his name to Joseph, after his favorite saint. His desire was to do penance for the mistakes of his life. To this end, he joined Our Lady of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. He lived there for two years, discerning his vocation. However, he concluded that his temperament needed more work and less contemplation.

He traveled to New Orleans, not certain where God was leading him. While at a Redemptoris monastery there, he read of Father Damien and his work at the leper colony of Kalaupapa, Molokai. “The work attracted me wonderfully,” he said, “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 the scenes of all past experiences.”

Journey to Hawai’i

Being a prudent man, he fully evaluated this decision. He traveled to the University of Notre Dame to speak with the noted author, Dr. Charles Stoddard who had visited Kalaupapa. With his encouragement, Joseph took the next available ship. He landed on the island of Hawai’i, where he met with the bishop and the director of the board of health. Both were impressed with his bearing and approved of his plan.

Kalawao Bay at Kalaupapa, Molokai
Kalawao Bay at Kalaupapa, Molokai | Source

New Life on Molokai

As he stepped onto the shores of Kalaupapa, July 19, 1886, Fr. Damien was there to greet him; “My name is Joseph Dutton; I’ve come to help and I’ve come to stay.” Fr. Damien explained that he could not pay him, but Joseph assured him that he had other purposes in mind. Fr. Damien welcomed him as “Brother Joseph,” and the name stuck.

In many ways, Joseph was a boon for the overextended Fr. Damien. He brought with him two outstanding qualities; he was remarkably industrious and calm. In these virtues, he mirrored St. Joseph, the patron saint of workers. Nothing ever disturbed him nor did anyone ever hear him raise his voice or show the least bit of frustration. Like Fr. Damien, he had a number of practical skills, such as carpentry and a knack for administration.

Despite his compromised strength due to Hansen’s disease (leprosy), Fr. Damien built him a one-room cabin. Their day began at 4:30 a.m. with prayers and Mass, which Br. Joseph served as an acolyte. After breakfast, they threw themselves into the work of the day: building projects, caring for the patients (lepers), and administrative tasks. Their day ended at 11 pm.

Joseph at 64; “It is my home and I am happy here - happy because I can live for others, and especially for those who need care and comfort and friendship as they wait for death in this lonely spot.”
Joseph at 64; “It is my home and I am happy here - happy because I can live for others, and especially for those who need care and comfort and friendship as they wait for death in this lonely spot.” | Source

Franciscan Spirit

Joseph became a Third Order Franciscan in 1892. This means that he practiced Franciscan spirituality while remaining a layperson. He did not take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, yet he lived them for the remainder of his life. For instance, he dressed simply in a blue denim shirt without an open throat, as the rule of 1221 prescribes. The rule also stipulates rather strict fasting three days a week with abstinence from meat four days a week.

An interviewer asked him later in life how he reached 87 years with such vigorous health. He responded, “I think the main reason is simple living. I live an exceedingly simple life here and always have. I eat simple food and wear simple clothing. Again, I have not a worry in the world. I ceased worrying years ago. I do not use tobacco, alcohol, tea, or coffee. I get plenty of fresh air, plenty of sunshine, and plenty of exercise.” Interestingly, he never used electric light in his small house, even when a benefactor offered to install it. He preferred the soft glow of candlelight to write letters.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Joseph in the main office; he had a gift for administration.A moment of reflection
Joseph in the main office; he had a gift for administration.
Joseph in the main office; he had a gift for administration. | Source
A moment of reflection
A moment of reflection | Source

Besides simplicity and modesty, the heart of the rule calls for living devoutly and performing works of mercy. This may include attendance at Mass each day, and a set number of prayers, such as 12 Our Fathers and 12 Hail Mary’s. Finally, the works of mercy stipulated in the rule such as feeding the hungry or visiting the sick were the soul of his daily life on Molokai.

Care for the Patients

It is remarkable that Joseph never contracted Hansen’s disease, despite being in such close contact with the patients. He ate with them, dressed their sores, and recreated with them for 44 years. Like Fr. Damien, whom he greatly admired, he saw Jesus in the suffering persons he cared for. “I have never grown tired of my work,” he said, “One never grows tired in Christ’s service, you know.”

Like Fr. Damien, Joseph treated the patients with dignity and kindness.
Like Fr. Damien, Joseph treated the patients with dignity and kindness. | Source

One of the persons he cared for was Fr. Damien himself when the disease had taken its toll. When Fr. Damien started going blind, for example, Joseph read spiritual books to him each evening. Likewise, when Fr. Damien faced painful accusations at the end, he found a sympathetic friend in Br. Joseph. Fr. Damien died three years after Joseph’s arrival, but it was long enough to pass on his spirit.

Care of the patients, then, was Joseph’s chief work each day. From a physical health perspective, this involved cleansing the patient’s wounds with a mixture of water and carbolic acid, applying fresh bandages, distributing medications, and assuring adequate nutrition. His moral support of the patients is especially noteworthy. He was like a father to them and they likewise loved him as a father. He encouraged and taught them, always with a ready smile to ease their difficult lot. He tried to find ways to brighten their challenging life. For instance, he acquired colorful baseball uniforms so that they could feel like real players.


Last Years

It’s not difficult to admire Joseph Dutton, and not surprisingly, notoriety crowned his last years. He received nearly fifty pounds of mail each day, and did his best to answer at least some of it, especially responding to letters from kings or presidents. He received the fame, as far as may be discerned, with great simplicity.

For instance, he came to the attention of President Teddy Roosevelt. Joseph wrote to him, expressing the hope that the patients of Molokai could see one of the ships of the U.S. Navy. It happened that the Great White Fleet of sixteen battleships and four destroyers was making a world tour at that time. Roosevelt contacted the admiral, requesting that the armada pass Molokai in battle formation. The patients gazed in sheer wonder as the ships steadily went by, dipping their flags.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Joseph seen here with distinguished visitors at St. Damien's grave.Joseph loved nature like most Franciscans.Joseph out for a walk as an old man
Joseph seen here with distinguished visitors at St. Damien's grave.
Joseph seen here with distinguished visitors at St. Damien's grave. | Source
Joseph loved nature like most Franciscans.
Joseph loved nature like most Franciscans. | Source
Joseph out for a walk as an old man
Joseph out for a walk as an old man | Source

An interviewer asked Joseph in his last year of life if he had any plans aside from helping the patients. He responded, “Why, yes; I am now preparing myself for death and my meeting with God. I look upon it as the happiest moment of my life.” He fell ill in his last months, necessitating care at a Honolulu hospital. Perhaps it gave him time to put aside all distractions and concentrate on “meeting God.” He died on March 26, 1931, and found a resting place next to Fr. Damien on Molokai, according to his wish. Many dignitaries of church and state attended his funeral.

What Makes a Saint?

The road to full canonization is a long one, passing through multiple stages. The first stage involves an inquiry into a person’s life, namely, did he or she practice heroic virtue. If so, then the Pope declares him/her a Servant of God; if there is further reason to hold a person up as a model, then he/she becomes Venerable. The last two stages are more challenging because medically proven miracles are required, one for beatification, unless the person is a martyr, and two for canonization.

Did Joseph Dutton practice heroic virtue? Let’s begin with the cardinal virtues; while it may seem imprudent to join a leper colony as a volunteer, he sought advice and evaluated this decision very carefully. Furthermore, his prudence manifests itself in as much as he never contracted the disease. He practiced justice exceptionally well, as he wanted above all to make amends before God. Likewise, he always practiced justice toward his neighbor, treating each with deference and kindness. He practiced fortitude by rising early and working hard all day and into the night. He reveals courage by working among lepers and dealing with the consequent hardships. Finally, as noted above, he conquered alcoholism and was temperate in the use of food, drink, and rest.

Joseph at 78
Joseph at 78 | Source

Regarding humility, Joseph always followed the directions of his superiors. When notoriety came his way in later years, he received it modestly. Concerning patience, nothing could ever ruffle him. His love for God, by all indications, was most sincere, as he sought to live for Him and abide by His commandments. One of the chief reasons that Joseph joined the colony was to do some service for others, particularly for the suffering members of society.

Regarding the evangelical virtues of poverty, chastity, and obedience, he lived these perfectly while never taking a vow. In my view, I believe Brother Joseph Dutton deserves a place among the saints. He practiced heroic virtue, particularly charity towards his neighbor, and his patronage is especially desirable for alcoholics. The Diocese of Honolulu began the initial investigation of Joseph Dutton’s life a few years ago. If he succeeds, then he will join two other saints of Molokai, St. Damien and St. Marianne Cope.


Apostle of the Exiled, St. Damien of Molokai, by Margaret and Matthew Bunson, Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, Huntington, Indiana, 2009

Kalaupapa and the Legacy of Father Damien, by Anwei V. Skinsnes Law and Richard A. Wisniewski, Pacific Basin Enterprises

Rule, Constitutions Confraternity Penitents of the Saint Francis Third Order

© 2018 Bede


Submit a Comment
  • Bede le Venerable profile imageAUTHOR


    21 months ago from Minnesota

    Thanks Linda, I enjoyed learning about Br. Joseph as I put this article together. I hope to imitate him in many respects – I have a ways to go, though.

  • AliciaC profile image

    Linda Crampton 

    21 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

    Br. Joseph Dutton sounds like an admirable and very kind man. Thank you for sharing his story, Bede.

  • Bede le Venerable profile imageAUTHOR


    21 months ago from Minnesota

    Bonjour Frances - thanks very much for the comment. It’s always good to hear from you. I find him also to be an inspiration. Just today, I found myself becoming angry because of somebody’s rudeness. It was most helpful to recall Br. Joseph’s example and so keep calm.

  • Bede le Venerable profile imageAUTHOR


    21 months ago from Minnesota

    Hi Ann, yes, I will definitely join with you in praying to Br. Joseph for Adrian. I’m certain that he will be glad to intercede, seeing how his whole life on Molokai was an effort to alleviate suffering. Alcoholism is so endemic these days; a relative of somebody I know died yesterday morning due to alcoholism. He was still in his fifties and drank himself into his grave…very sad. Let’s hope that Adrian’s mishap will bring about a lasting change.

  • Bede le Venerable profile imageAUTHOR


    21 months ago from Minnesota

    Hello Mary, many saints belonged to religious orders and could thereby find support for their cause. Br. Joseph was a layperson, so it will be more challenging. I also hope the Pope canonizes him; he would be a good patron for alcoholics, lay single persons, and persons who made mistakes in life but made amends.

  • Frances Metcalfe profile image

    Frances Metcalfe 

    21 months ago from The Limousin, France

    A very interesting article about an unusual, compassionate and selfless individual.

  • Amble profile image


    21 months ago from Surrey United Kingdom

    Having read about this remarkable man, ( who is definitely worthy of canonisation ( but surely there are many many heroic saints who will never be canonised?) I shall read his life again more slowly.

    I want to ask him to help a neighbour whose alcoholism has caused him to commit an act of criminal damage. This man is now blaming himself in all kinds of ways but we know that he has been driven to this, the alcoholism, through a recent bereavement, and all sort of other factors which have caused him immense stress.

    I shall ask Br, Joseph Dutton, to help this man in his desire to give up alcohol. The criminal damage may have been the trigger he needed. We are trying to encourage him not to make himself ill with self-blame.

    Would you too like to ask Br Joseph's help for Adrian?

  • aesta1 profile image

    Mary Norton 

    21 months ago from Ontario, Canada

    A saintly life and there is really no need to prove that he lived a life worthy of emulation. However, canonization has its rules. I hope that one day he will be proclaimed a saint.


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