STOWE, Vermont — Why would a parish celebrate the 179th anniversary of someone’s birth?
Blessed Sacrament Parish in Stowe, did just that on April 24 to mark the birth of Ira Dutton — a Civil War veteran born in Stowe who joined St. Damien of Molokai in his ministry to lepers and was declared a Servant of God last year, the first step toward canonization.
Blessed Sacrament Church, which was built on land that was once the Dutton farm where Ira was born, is dedicated to him.
He entered the Catholic Church on his 40th birthday, taking the name Joseph after his patron, St. Joseph. Although he was often called “Brother Dutton,” he was not a religious brother. Later in life, he became a Third Order Franciscan.
“We are proud to have the birthplace of this remarkable man from Lamoille County marked by one of our churches, and every year moving forward we will honor the work of grace that God accomplished in him, leading him to a life of penance and a life love and charity poured out in serving Christ in the poorest and most abandoned,” said Father Jon Schnobrich, pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish.
Dutton’s birthday celebration, on Divine Mercy Sunday, included Mass, a tour of the exterior of the church that depicts his life on Molokai, Hawaiian music and dance, videos relating to his life and a Hawaiian-style luncheon. Many of the participants wore leis or floral hair clips.
“Our Servant of God Joseph Dutton’s life bears a beautiful witness to the mercy of God,” Schnobrich said in his homily, noting that God’s mercy accompanied Dutton through war and alcoholism and eventually to helping those in need.
God’s mercy transforms, heals and makes new, he added.
Dutton’s life “inspires us with hope for those great and holy things God desires to accomplish though us,” Schnobrich said.
He said Dutton was being ordinary, simple and uncomplicated, adding: “How much our God loves the ordinary, the simple and the uncomplicated.”
Claudia Kanile’a Goddard of New York City sang a song written by the boys of the Kalawao Band, leprosy patients, in 1879 to express their love for St. Damien.
Later, at the luncheon, she accompanied members of “Gracious Ladies” of New York who performed authentic hula dances.
Blessed Sacrament parishioner Jim Brochhausen called the birthday celebration “quite amazing” and said it is “phenomenal” to have such a connection with this Servant of God.
Another parishioner, Susi Clark, said, “We are so happy to celebrate Brother Joseph Dutton because now he has achieved the first level toward sainthood. And to have a layperson from Stowe is extraordinary.”
Dutton would be the third saint who cared for the lepers on Molokai, joining St. Damien de Veuster and St. Marianne Cope.
Although Dutton was born in Stowe, his family moved to Wisconsin in 1847. He served in the Civil War and married in 1866. But his wife left him a year later, and he began a period he later called the “degenerate decade,” drinking heavily, something he later discontinued.
He was determined to do penance and atone for his “wild years,” and after studying the Catholic faith, he decided that being Catholic would best enable him to lead a penitential life.
He also learned about Damien and the Kalaupapa leprosy settlement in Hawaii and decided to go to there to help carry on the work of Father Damien, who had been diagnosed with leprosy, and soon became an expert in caring for the patients’ medical needs.
Dutton died in Hawaii in 1931.
Schnobrich said Dutton’s birthday celebration was a great way to honor and celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday because of how Dutton experienced God’s mercy.
Celebrating a 179th birthday is “an odd birthday to go big on,” he said, but the parish did so as a “way of honoring the new movement of raising up Brother Dutton” for canonization.
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Urban is managing editor of Vermont Catholic magazine, publication of the Diocese of Burlington.