Skip to main content
ArticlesBaptistBlogConversion StoriesHistoric Conversions

Br. Joseph Dutton:
A Baptist Convert on the Path to Sainthood

Matt Swaim
June 12, 2024 No Comments

In January of 2024, the sainthood cause of Joseph Dutton concluded its local phase of exploration in the Diocese of Honolulu, meaning that he became officially recognized by the Catholic Church as a Servant of God. If miracles are approved through his intercession, he would be the third person from Hawaii to become a canonized saint.

So who was he?

As it turns out, Brother Joseph, as he was known to the lepers of Molokai, followed a long and winding path to Christian service, through sin and struggle and discernment, before leaving everything behind to honor Jesus by ministering to those affected by leprosy.

He was born Ira Barnes Dutton on April 27, 1843, in Stowe, Vermont, and was living in Wisconsin when the Civil War broke out a couple of decades later. He joined the 13th Wisconsin Infantry and witnessed the horrors of brother fighting against brother, as well as the fallout of a nation divided by violence and strife. Dutton grew up Baptist, but his experience of war factored into his descent into alcoholism, as well as a broken marriage. That struggle with alcohol would go on for several years, until he made a resolution to quit drinking in 1876. This was part of a deeper conversion in his life, which led him to eventually consider and embrace the claims of the Catholic Faith.

In 1883, he joined the Catholic Church, and in his vocational discernment, spent more than a year living with the Trappist monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. When he learned of the mission of Fr. Damien de Veuster in Hawaii, and how St. Damien was ministering to the lepers there, he decided to leave everything behind and make himself available to that work.

When Dutton, who had taken the name “Brother Joseph,” arrived in Hawaii, he made a simple declaration to Fr. Damien: “My name is Joseph Dutton; I’ve come to help, and I’ve come to stay.” Brother Joseph would remain there until and after the passing of St. Damien of Molokai, going on to found the Baldwin Home for men and boys.

The work of Brother Joseph even garnered the attention of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt; after learning of Brother Joseph’s work, Roosevelt had the naval fleet dip their flags in tribute as they sailed past the island where he was ministering.

Brother Joseph Dutton died in March of 1931 at the age of 87, and nearly a century later, the Diocese of Honolulu organized a committee to begin exploring the possibility of recommending him to the larger Church for possible sainthood. The files sent to Rome regarding Brother Joseph detailed over 2,000 pages of documentation regarding his work and correspondence. After a thorough review of them by the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints, the Vatican concluded that the canonization cause could move forward, meaning that Brother Joseph could offi- cially be recognized by the Church under the title “Servant of God.”

In a Mass of celebration for the announcement, Bishop Larry Silva of Honolulu said that Brother Joseph “left everything behind, so that he could not only change course himself but change the course of many others, by catching them from drowning in despair and raising them to the light that is Jesus Christ.”*  The next step in his cause for sainthood will be a deeper review of his life and legacy, to determine whether or not he can be officially recognized with decree of Heroic Virtue. This would result in him being given the title “Venerable Servant of God,” which would put him one step closer to the possibility of being held up to the Church as “St. Joseph Dutton.”

In being recommended to the Church for possible sainthood, Dutton joins the ranks of two other significant missionaries to the lepers of Hawaii; St. Damian of Molokai, the Belgian priest whose mission he joined on the island, and St. Marianne Cope, who left her hospital work in upstate New York to minister in the North Pacific. If Brother Joseph ends up being canonized, it will set Hawaii apart as a hotbed of American saints; all three of them having done the bulk of their ministry before Hawaii was admitted to statehood in 1958.

Servant of God Joseph Dutton, convert, veteran, and missionary, pray for us!

Matt Swaim

Matt Swaim is Director of Outreach for The Coming Home Network.

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap