With the recent canonizations of Father Damien of Molokai and Mother Marianne Cope, the time has come to recognize Brother Joseph, who worked with them in that remote leper colony. The spiritual life having its paradoxes, the reason he should be recognized is that he would not want any recognition. By becoming more aware of this saintly man, we may become more appreciative of the vocation of the religious brother, which in turn helps us to focus more fully on Christ.
Famous in his own day, Brother Joseph was born Ira Barnes Dutton in 1843 in Stowe, Vermont, but grew up in Janesville, Wisconsin. During the American Civil War, he volunteered and served as a quartermaster in the Union Army, and what we would call post-traumatic stress disorder led to his failed marriage and his turning to the bottle. Once he sobered up, he converted to Catholicism and sought out the Trappist abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky. It was there that he learned about the work of Father Damien amongst the lepers of Hawaii.
In 1886 Brother Joseph, having been dispensed from his monastic vows, received his bishop’s permission to go to Molokai as a penitent. There he assisted Father Damien, his practical skills from farm life and the army making him an invaluable jack of all trades, with everything from serving Mass to cleaning toilets, changing bandages, and general tidying up. For forty-five years he worked at Molokai, refusing any pay and insisting that his army pension be sent to Gethsemani.
In 1908, while the Great White Fleet of the U.S. Navy toured the Pacific, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the ships to sail with flying colors as they passed the leper colony of Molokai in order to acknowledge the twenty-two years of selfless service given by Brother Joseph. Despite such an honor, Brother Joseph’s desire was to work and pray in obscurity.
Still, more honors came. Hawaii’s legislature adopted a resolution thanking him for his “inspiring services” and also voted that he receive a monthly pension. In 1929 Pope Pius XI sent his apostolic blessing.
In 1931, when Brother Joseph died, he received an eloquent tribute from former president Calvin Coolidge in his daily syndicated newspaper column. “[T]his man died a saintly world figure,” Coolidge wrote, “His faith, his works, his self-sacrifice appeal to people because there is always something of the same spirit in them. . . . The universal response to the example of his life is another demonstration of what mankind regard as just and true and holy.”
As John Farrow memorably related in his biography of Father Damien, published in 1937, for months Father Damien badgered Brother Joseph to become a priest, until one day Brother Joseph rounded on him and said whatever needed to be said, clearly and emphatically. Farrow does not record what was said. According to Farrow, however, Brother Joseph later described Father Damien’s repeated hounding of him to become a priest “as one of the hardest trials of his life.”
While over the years brothers have been characterized by plain and even at times blunt speech, they have also been known for their reticence and great capacity for inner stillness. Typical of the spiritual life of a religious brother is what I once heard of an Irish Cistercian brother who died in the 1960s. Significantly, I never heard his name. Throughout the long decades working at his assigned tasks, he drew inspiration from his thrice-daily Rosary and reading over and over again the one book he had, given him as a novice, Columba Marmion’s Christ the Ideal of the Monk.
Sadly, religious brothers have not all been paragons of virtue: One need only recall the number of Christian Brothers in Ireland who preyed upon teenage and pre-teenage boys. Nevertheless, as saintly brothers such as Brother Joseph and Saints André Bessette (1845-1937), Conrad of Parzham (1818-1894), and Alphonsus (Alonso) Rodriguez (1532-1617) indicate, the vocation of religious brother can be a way to holiness. If it were not, the Church would have suppressed it ages ago.
Although the Vatican has been working for several years on a document about the vocation of religious brother, it seems a long way from seeing the light of day. Meanwhile, the vocation of religious brothers proves difficult to understand. People have clear ideas about what priests and nuns are, but brothers tend to be, as the saying goes, off everyone’s radar. When one hears a prayer for “priests and religious,” nearly always the phrase is synonymous with “priests and nuns.”
In a way, that anonymity is appropriate. Religious brothers like Joseph of Molokai bear witness to Christ by sharing in the hidden life of Nazareth. Brothers have thus traditionally had deep devotions to the Virgin Mary and to Saint Joseph. Rather than resembling those hardworking parents in an out-of-the-way village, though, brothers are more like bachelor uncles alongside the fathers, the priests. Their calling as brothers is to serve in quiet ways, often performing many small, daily chores unnoticed by others, so that when brothers die or become too unwell to work, folks are surprised by how many people it takes to replace them.
Being a religious brother is a unique vocation, entirely its own. It is a way to live a single life dedicated to God, and it provides another option open to men who want to be more fully engaged in the Church but who mull over all that a priest does and know in the marrow of their bones, “That just isn’t me.” A brother is Sam to the priest’s Frodo. He finds that there must be more to life than how he has been living it, and so he seeks his vocation in a structured Christian community, his Shire (or Nazareth) usually being a monastery, although apparently a leper colony can work just as well.
Some years ago a married layman, frustrated by many problems in the Church, barked at me, “The Church doesn’t need monks, she needs priests!” By monks he meant brothers. Well, she needs both, along with hermits, religious sisters, and faithful married couples.
When encouraging and discerning vocations to be a religious brother, we all must keep in mind that the ministry of a brother is different from that of a priest yet has infinite variety. In its essential mystery, whatever else it may be, being a brother is not something like “priesthood lite.” In his own way Brother Joseph showed that truth to Father Damien, just as both in their distinctive roles continue to show us Christ.
Brother Joseph of Molokai, pray for us!
Daniel J. Heisey, O.S.B., is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno.
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