The new Joseph Dutton Day wouldn’t be a state holiday, meaning public workers wouldn’t get the day off.

Hawaii lawmakers want to set aside April 27 each year to commemorate the efforts of a Kalaupapa missionary who spent almost half his life working with Hansen’s disease patients at the turn of the 20th century.

University of Hawaii Student Stories project badge

House Bill 340 would make April 27 Brother Joseph Dutton Day, although it wouldn’t be a state holiday. That day is Dutton’s birthday as well as the day he joined the Catholic Church.

Almost 8,000 people were sent into isolation on Molokai in 1865 after the Hawaiian kingdom instituted an act to prevent the spread of leprosy, which set apart land to isolate people afflicted with the disease.

Dutton, born Ira Barnes Dutton, made his way to Hawaii in 1886 upon learning about the work at Kalaupapa of Joseph De Veuster, best known as Father Damien, 20 years after the first leprosy sufferers were banished to Molokai.  

Joseph Dutton spent more than 40 years working with Hansen’s disease patients. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2023)

Sister Barbara Jean Wajda of St. Francis Church on Molokai, who lives and volunteers on the Makanalua Peninsula, another name for Kalaupapa, said she supports this idea to acknowledge “Dutton’s magnanimous contribution to the care of the people with this dreadful disease.”

Saint Damien De Veuster, Mother Marianne Cope and Dutton helped the people of Kalaupapa at extreme personal cost, Wajda said. Damien eventually died after contracting Hansen’s disease.

There’s a statue of Damien in front of the State Capitol. There’s one of Dutton on the campus of St. Francis School, adjacent to the University of Hawaii Manoa, and another on Molokai. 

At Kalaupapa, where Dutton spent 44 years until he death, he managed the Baldwin Home for Men and Boys for Hansen’s disease victims. 

Dutton never contracted the disease, despite working in close contact with the people at the Kalawao leprosarium. He accepted no pay and directed his military pension to monks.

The Kalaupapa National Historical Park website says that Dutton was widely known in the United States and other countries, including by President Woodrow Wilson. President Theodore Roosevelt once sent the U.S. Pacific Fleet past Molokai to dip their colors in salute. 

The site today is overseen by the U.S. National Park Service and serves as a reminder of a time when Hawaiian people were exposed to diseases for which they had no immunity.

  • Stories By University Of Hawaii Students

April 27 has significance as Dutton’s birthday, according to testimony from the Committee on Culture, Arts, and International Affairs, but it also was the day Dutton joined the Catholic Church, was baptized and changed his name to Joseph, beginning his new life. 

“The interest in the history of Kalaupapa has seen a strong resurgence after generations of disinterest and neglect,” according to written testimony in support of the bill from the Department of Accounting and General Services.

The Senate is expected to vote on the bill Tuesday.

Support Civil Beat during the season of giving.

As a small nonprofit newsroom, our mission is powered by readers like you. But did you know that less than 1% of readers donate to Civil Beat?

Give today and support local journalism that helps to inform, empower and connect.

About the Author