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

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Servant of God Joseph Dutton: He got off the boat in 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 a fully Protestant environment, taught Sunday school, and worked in a Wisconsin bookstore when the Civil War broke out. He recalled how “the streets were lined with jubilant crowds, bands were playing and flags were flying.” Ira enlisted in September 1861 and served four years in the 13th Wisconsin Regiment.

The 13th Wisconsin saw little fighting during the war, but it allowed Ira to demonstrate his innate leadership skills. He was eventually promoted to captain. He saw the military as a career, but as the numbers dwindled after the war, he found his chances of advancement were very slim. He left the army in 1866 and spent the next 20 years in various jobs. He also married an unfaithful wife, and the marriage lasted a short time. He never even mentioned his name. He filed for 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 accepted a job with the War Department, dealing with claims against the government. Ira was successful in all of his endeavors and was an honest citizen. But at night he would stay home and drink, and he became an alcoholic. He said, “I never hurt anyone other than myself. He quit drinking in 1876 and never drank again.

Baptized on his 40th birthday

Ira moved away from religion during the war. But he was interested in Catholicism. He had befriended some Catholics, and their influence made him want to know 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, whom he greatly admired, quit his government post and began to start a “new life.”

Joseph wanted to do penance for his “wild years” and his state of sin. He visited the Monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemane in Kentucky. It was the home of the Trappist monks, and he was determined to repent for the rest of his life. After 20 months, he realized that he had to do a penitential action and not a penitential contemplation. He knew Father Damien and his apostolate for lepers in Molokai, Hawaii. He left the Trappist monastery and, with the abbot’s blessing, began to prepare to leave for Molokai. He remained lifelong friends with the Trappists.

Meeting with Father Damien of Molokai

Joseph Dutton arrived in Molokai in 1886. When he arrived he remembered how Father Damien greeted 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 couldn’t pay it, and Joseph replied, “I don’t care. 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 started writing letters to government officials and influencers, seeking help for people with leprosy. He would explain to them what life was like 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 death of the holy priest. Before his death in 1889, Father Damien said: “I can die now. Brother Joseph will take care of my orphans.

Brother Joseph served as an administrator, carpenter, repairman, and even a nurse, healing wounds and caring for the sick and dying. He had saved the money he had received from two pensions and used it for lepers. He has spent 44 years caring for young boys and men with 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 Saint Damien at Saint Philomena Church in Kalawao. Before his death he reportedly said: “It was a happy place – a happy life.”

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

The Joseph Dutton Guild is spearheading efforts to further the cause of canonization, and the United States Bishops’ Conference recently gave the green light for the cause to continue.

See the full list of U.S. residents under canonization here:


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