Ira Barnes Dutton was born April 27, 1843 on a family farm in Stowe, Vermont, son of Methodist parents Ezra Dutton and Abigail Barnes. His family moved to Janesville, Wisconsin, four years later.
In 1861, he enlisted with the 13th Wisconsin Infantry and served in the Union Army during the Civil War as a quartermaster, as well as nursing the wounded and burying the dead. He was discharged in 1866 as a Captain, but stayed in the South tracing missing soldiers, collecting their remains and settling survivors’ claims.
This and a failed marriage led him into alcoholism, and by his own account he spent the next decade in a drunken stupor (“I never injured anyone but myself.”) When he emerged from the gutter in 1876, wanting to do penance for his “wild years” and “sinful capers,” he began to study religion and in 1883 joined the Trappist Monastery at Gethsemane, Kentucky.
It was only after reading about Father Damien that he found his “real vocation;” he sought to help Damien on Molokai. His motive was not to hide from the world, but “to do some good for my neighbor and at the same time make it my penitentiary in doing penance for my sins and errors.” From San Francisco, he sailed for Molokai. (McNamara)
When he arrived on July 29, 1886, although he never took religious vows, he became known as “Brother Joseph” and “Brother Dutton,” “brother to everybody.” (McNamara)
His days were spent as a janitor, cleaning the primitive shelters, scrubbing floors, while also building latrines and outbuildings and bandaging sores, as well as helping Mother Marianne Cope in keeping records and organizing arriving patients. Like Mother Marianne and unlike Father Damien, he never contracted Hansen’s Disease. (Rutler)
Every day he marveled more and more at what he saw around him, bravery, he often said, greater than in the war he had been through. He enjoyed the playing of the church organist; one day he saw that one of the man’s hands was so diseased that all that was left was a stump which the organist had fastened to a stick and with which he struck the bass notes. (Burton)
Damien knew how different they were in temperament “but there is love between us,” he said. Damien had urged Dutton to become a priest; but Dutton felt unfit. “That requires a high character and great purity,” he said and he evidently felt that his early life had disqualified him. (Burton)
On Molokai, Dutton found real peace and joy. One peer recalled: “Dutton had a divine temper; nothing could ruffle it.” At 83, Joseph wrote: “I am ashamed to think that I am inclined to be jolly. Often think we don’t know that our Lord ever laughed, and here my laugh is ready to burst out any minute.” (McNamara)
He never left Molokai; he never wanted to. “Seek a vacation?” he asked. “Anything else would be slavery … The people here like me, I think, and I am sure I like them.” He added: “I would not leave my lepers for all the money the world might have.”
The one exception was in 1917, when the 74-year-old patriot tried “to buckle on my sword-belt again” and re-enlist. His application was rejected, but he wasn’t heart-broken. (McNamara)
Brother Joseph taught the children the games he had played as a child. Molokai became very proud of its baseball teams, coached and uniformed by Brother Joseph himself.
The one thing that had troubled Father Damien was what would happen to his children when he died. Now he could smile and say, “I can die now. Brother Joseph will take care of my orphans.” (Burton) (Damien came to Kalawao in 1873, he died in 1889. Brother Joseph worked with Damien for three years; he continued to serve the patients there for several more decades.)
In 1908, while the fleet of the US Navy toured the Pacific, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the ships to sail with flying colors as they passed the leper colony of Molokai in order to acknowledge the years of selfless service given by Brother Joseph. Despite such an honor, Brother Joseph’s desire was to work and pray in obscurity. (Heisey)
Still, more honors came. A bill in the Hawaiʻi Territorial legislature proposed to give Brother Joseph a $50 monthly pension for his “inspiring services;” the bill was tabled at his request and he said he “was in good health and wanted no reward for his work among the lepers.” (Arkansas Catholic, July 19, 1919) In 1929 Pope Pius XI sent his apostolic blessing. (Heisey)
On the eve of his 86th birthday, the 1929 session of the legislature adopted a resolution of appreciation of Brother Joseph Dutton’s services that briefly notes, “Resolved, that this House put on record its appreciation of the great and inspiring service and influence for good in the splendid and effective service he has rendered in their behalf during the past 40 years by Brother Joseph Dutton, in his ministration to the afflicted in Kalawao and Kalaupapa, and that the thanks of the House of Representatives be extended to him in this memorial.” (Thrum)
Brother Joseph died on March 26, 1931. Former president Calvin Coolidge in his daily syndicated newspaper column noted, “Far out in the islands of the Pacific the soul of Brother Joseph Dutton has been released from the limitations of this earth … (T)his man died a saintly world figure.”
“His faith, his works, his self-sacrifice appeal to people because there is always something of the same spirit in them. Therein lies the moral power of this world. He realized a vision which we all have. The universal response to the example of his life is another demonstration of what mankind regard as just and true and holy.”
“He showed the power of what is good and the binding force of the common brotherhood of man.” (Milwaukee Sentinel, March 29, 1931)
A couple interesting side notes relate to Brother Joseph and Stowe, Vermont. After fleeing Austria in 1938, the von Trapp family (Trapp Family Singers (of Sound of Music fame; refugees from pre-war Austria)) bought a farm in the mountains of Stowe in 1942 and made it their adopted home.
When the town was looking for a site for a new church, Maria von Trapp, the family matriarch, provided support for acquisition of land and building of the Blessed Sacrament Church (they purposefully purchased a portion of the Dutton’s former farm where Brother Joseph was born.) The first mass was held on March 6, 1949.
The church windows, walls and ceilings were painted and decorated by internationally renowned French artist Andre Girard. Twelve exterior panels depict the life of Damien and Brother Joseph at Kalawao. The church and its panels were recently restored.
In March 1952, the Trapp Family Singers visited Molokai and sang over Brother Joseph’s grave. (Yenkavitch) “Gently, Johannes placed our Mount Mansfield pine wreath at the foot of the cross. Then we began to sing. How often have I felt with deepest gratitude this great glory of our life as a singing family: that, whenever words failed to say what was taking place in our hearts, we could always express it in music.” (Maria von Trapp, The News and Tribune, January 3, 1960)
Recently, a 7-foot marble statue of Brother Joseph, depicting him as a young Civil War Union soldier, was placed at Molokai’s St. Joseph Church in Kamalo (the church Damien built;) a second statue is expected to be installed at Damien Memorial School in Honolulu (it is planned to be placed in back of the school, facing the campus’ running track.)