Joseph Dutton at Father Damien's grave at Kalaupapa.

Joseph Dutton at Father Damien’s grave at Kalaupapa. Photo: Hawaii State Archives.

I’ve been haunted by several personal failures. Big failures. I’ve made promises that were impossible to keep. I began things that I couldn’t finish. I’ve been heartbroken, I’ve been bankrupt, I’ve been a dropout, I’ve been cast as a flake, a fiend, a fraud.

I cringe thinking of moments where I tried something and failed because of my own laziness, or my own stupidity, or more likely broken by my own fear, or my own crippling anxiety. I recoil moreso when I imagine the people I directly affected by those failures—among them are my closest friends, and my own parents, too.

I was asked to consider why Joseph Dutton plays such a central role in my own sense of faith. I was challenged, “Why doesn’t your ministry follow after Father Damien or Mother Marianne Cope—who played larger roles in serving the ailing residents of the Kalaupapa leper colony?”

I’ve lived through a third of my life. I lived it constantly in search of second chances—seeking atonement for what I have done wrong in my life, and seeking renewal in purpose. I answered the question so simply, “I was in search of an apostle of second chances.”

The whole idea of sainthood is not so much having someone to pray to when you’re in trouble, but rather someone to look to for inspiration because of what they went through, how they lived their lives, how they overcame their challenges.

In Joseph Dutton, I found someone I could relate to and knew many others could, too.

Here was a man who thought himself broken, broken in every sense imaginable.

He punished himself for what he thought he did wrong: leaving his family to take up arms in the Civil War, marrying a woman who would spend all the money she had on meaningless luxuries, a woman who had a reputation of infidelity, constantly finding pleasure with other men. Dutton divorced her—very unbecoming a Christian gentleman in the 1880s.

Dutton then dedicated his life to the Catholic ideals and put himself in a Kentucky Trappist monastery. But that didn’t turn out so well. He couldn’t go through with it after trying for two years. He left.

And to top it all off, Dutton was an alcoholic. Though a functioning one, he drank himself into stupors each night after a hard day’s work.

Dutton was so broken that he escaped it all by throwing himself into the most far flung place he could think of, just so that he could find himself again, just so that he could start all over again. It is something that I have thought to do at my darkest hours—to leave all that I have behind, hitch a ride to some strange place where my past couldn’t find me. And I’m quite certain, many people have thought to do the same.

Did Dutton find the atonement he was looking for?

It took him over forty-four years to truly answer that question.

Forty-four years is a very long time to realize one’s definitive purpose. As disheartening as it is to think it might take that long to understand my own Truth, I find comfort in knowing someone else waited as long—and the point is, in the end, he found it.