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Honolulu bishop says Mass for Vermonter on path to sainthood for ministering with St. Damian of Molokai

Two women stand beneath a picture of Servant of God Joseph Dutton ahead of a Mass in his honor celebrated by Bishop Larry Silva of Honolulu at Blessed Sacrament Church in Stowe, Vt., April 23, 2023. Dutton was a layman from Stowe who ministered to people with Hansen's disease, or leprosy, in Hawaii with St. Damien DeVeuster and St. Marianne Cope, and he is now on the road to canonization. (OSV News photo/Cori Fugere Urban, Vermont Catholic)

STOWE, Vt. (OSV News) — One hundred and eighty years ago Ira Dutton was born in Stowe on farmland upon which now stands Blessed Sacrament Church.

“No one at that time had the slightest inkling that 180 years later, people from Hawaii and people from Stowe and beyond would be together (in the church) to give thanks to God for his birth and his presence among us,” said Honolulu Bishop Larry Silva.

He was the homilist and celebrant of a special Mass celebrated in April at Blessed Sacrament Church to mark the 180th anniversary of the birth of Dutton, now known as Servant of God Joseph Dutton, a layman who ministered to people with Hansen’s disease, or leprosy, in Hawaii with St. Damien DeVeuster and St. Marianne Cope. Now he is now on the road to canonization.

After leaving Stowe, Dutton served in the Union Army during the Civil War. “He set out, perhaps scandalized that half his beloved country could think it acceptable to have other human beings as slaves,” Bishop Silva said in his homily April 23. “He went on the journey of the Civil War to try to right that wrong, yet to hold together the union of pro- and anti-slavery states. … He was disillusioned by the ugliness of war and its absurdity of killing others so that you could ultimately be at peace with them.”

His early life was dissolute, and he entered a marriage he was ill-prepared to sustain, drank to excess and caroused.

But Dutton turned his life toward God and embarked on a journey of repentance “by which his very life would give witness to Jesus,” Bishop Silva said.

Dutton spent 44 years isolated on the Hawaiian island of Molokai with “the most destitute and desolate outcasts of the world, those who suffered the scorned disease of leprosy,” he continued. “Every day of his life (there) he would encounter Jesus in a very real way. Every day he would give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger and visit the sick and imprisoned. Most of us choose one or two of these things to do, but he did all of them every day of the last 44 years of his life.”

Bishop Silva noted that everyone has sadness and distress in their lives, but he emphasized that Jesus takes the initiative to walk with everyone. “Sometimes he is disguised as a beggar in need, as a confused young person, as a depressed elder, as someone the world finds distasteful to be with. But if we come here (to Mass) every Sunday — or more often — for this breaking of bread, we will recognize the Risen One, the Lord Jesus, who gives us such joy that we must … run and tell others.”

The presence of Jesus alone “can turn us from sinners into saints, so we come here to listen to him and to know him in the breaking of bread, and to serve him in the disguise of those who are most in need,” the bishop said.

Deacon Bob Begley of Holy Angels Parish in St. Albans, Vermont, attended the Mass along with other Secular Franciscans, honoring Dutton, who was a Third Order Franciscan. “It was joyful to witness a life of Gospel living being acknowledged so many years after and the legacy continuing,” he told Vermont Catholic, Burlington’s diocesan publication.

Blessed Sacrament Church was filled for the Mass, and Father Jon Schnobrich, pastor, enthused, “We are just so grateful all of you chose to celebrate Servant of God Joseph Dutton … (who) inspires us to a life of holiness and grace.”

Bishop Silva — who like the other priests celebrating the Mass and members of the congregation wore a Hawaiian lei — gave the final blessing in the Hawaiian language.
Some of the music was sung in Hawaiian, and after the Mass a luncheon featured Gracious
Ladies of New York City performing traditional Hawaiian dance.

Blessed Sacrament parishioner Jan Hudgens said it is “wonderful” to have a Stowe native on the path of sainthood, noting his example of dedication to God through the people he served in Hawaii.

Another parishioner, Lorraine Sweetser, said she is proud to be a Vermonter and proud that another Vermonter has been declared a Servant of God.

Dutton died in Hawaii in 1931. The Diocese of Honolulu initiated his canonization cause in 2015. He received the title of “Servant of God” when his cause was officially opened. The next step would be for him to be declared “Venerable,” which would come after the Vatican, in examining documentation gathered about him, finds he lived a life of “heroic virtue.”

After that, the next steps are beatification and canonization. In general, one miracle attributed to the intercession of a sainthood candidate and verified by the church is needed for beatification, with a second such miracle needed for canonization.

Cori Fugere Urban is managing editor of Vermont Catholic, official publication of the Diocese of Burlington.

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