Dutton on the Path to Sainthood

Photo by Jack Kiyonaga

Molokai is one step closer to having its third Catholic saint. Joseph Dutton, who served in Kalaupapa for 44 years, will be submitted to the Vatican for canonization consideration on Jan. 21. If approved, Dutton would join St. Damien and St. Marianne Cope as Catholic saints serving Hansen’s disease patients exiled in Kalaupapa.

A formal cause of canonization for Dutton was opened by the Diocese of Honolulu in May of 2022. Now, the nearly 2,000 pages of evidence gathered since then will be reviewed by the Church. Dutton needs proof of one miracle after his death to be named as “Blessed,” which is one step before sainthood.

Father Patrick Killilea, the pastor of St. Francis Church in Kalaupapa, explained that Dutton was instrumental in aiding the people of Kalaupapa, serving alongside the now-canonized Damien and Marianne.

Dutton “just showed up here. He came…and immediately began to help Damien in the various projects,” explained Killilea.

Dutton is a compelling, complicated figure. Born in Stowe, Vermont in 1843, he fought in the Civil War. A troubled life after serving in the Union Army followed by a broken marriage, alcoholism and PTSD led Dutton to Catholicism, and then Kalaupapa.

During his time on the remote peninsula , Dutton worked alongside St. Damien building houses, taking care of the patients, and writing, explained Killilea. Dutton was especially involved in caring for the orphaned boys of the colony at the Baldwin Home for Boys.

Killilea explained that outside of just a Catholic framework, Dutton can serve as an example for all.

“One of the reasons why [Dutton’s] cause is being put forward is for those who are addicted to drugs or drink, as an example of someone who beat that,” said Killilea.

Killilea believed it likely that Dutton would eventually be made a Catholic saint.

“He seemed like an ordinary man but in a sense did extraordinary things,” said Killilea, especially regarding his “so called making amends for his earlier life of what he called ‘debauchery’.”

If Dutton is made a saint, then the five square miles which constitute the Kalaupapa peninsula will have three saints – an anomaly that is certainly unique in the United States. Dutton’s candidacy also raises questions about the future of Kalaupapa.

Pre-COVID, Kalaupapa allowed 100 visitors per day. That number is now 25, according to Killilea, with visitors having to be sponsored and fly down, rather than hike the pali.

“How long will this peninsula remain as such a place? A place of tours but also pilgrimage…the places of the saints,” wondered Killilea.

Ultimately, the Catholic diocese would like to maintain a presence, explained Killilea, but they need a congregation to minister to. Right now, “the collection basket doesn’t collect too much,” said Killilea.

A service will be held on Sunday, Jan. 21 at the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in Honolulu to celebrate sending Dutton’s case to the Vatican.


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