A Glimpse into the World of Kalawao

by Joseph Yenkavitch

Sometimes a small stop on a journey can open up a larger world.

While you’re enjoying the four-season delights of Stowe, Vermont, be sure to take some time to visit the Blessed Sacrament Church just off of route 108.  It’s an unassuming church tucked among hotels and shops, but it connects one remarkable man, Brother Joseph Dutton, with events half a world away, and lays bare the best and worst in human nature.

But don’t expect to pick up a pamphlet for this story.  In this case, the story lies on the outside walls of the church itself.

Twelve murals adorn the two long sides of the church.  They seem crude, almost childlike, but one is instantly drawn to them.  Each mural provides a tiny glimpse into the world of Kalawao, a leper colony that once existed on Molokai, Hawaii.  On all of the murals is the figure of Brother Dutton, a man who spent forty-three years tending to the needs of those abandoned lepers and over whose birthplace the church is built.

The luxuriant land and warm Pacific that fill the murals are usually associated with a pleasant escape, but were prison walls for the lepers.  Leprosy was largely ignored when it first appeared in Hawaii in the 1830s, but by the 1860s, people had become alarmed by the terrible wasting disease.

Hawaii established a two-step process for dealing with the disease.  First the lepers were taken to Honolulu for treatment.  When that didn’t work, they were shipped to Kalawao on the small Kalaupapa peninsula. Mountains hemmed in the tiny colony, making it easier to guard the lepers,

Most people are more familiar with Father Damien de Veuster, who first organized the Kalawao colony, than with Joseph Dutton.  Beyond the work that Father Damien did, part of his fame lay in his early death from the disease he hoped to conquer.  He became the face of what seemed a hopeless fight.

But Dutton, who arrived unannounced at Kalawao on July 29, 1886 and ready to fulfill his desire for a life of penance, proved equally dedicated.  Within three years, Father Damien had died and Dutton gladly shouldered the burden.  For more than forty years he never wavered, washing sores, tending ulcers, performing rudimentary surgery, building shelters, and writing to presidents, princes, and medical professionals for help.  He never left the Kalaupapa peninsula.

Within twenty years Dutton had made progress.  There were considerably fewer deaths and the settlement finally well supplied because of Dutton’s letters had electricity, an ice plant, government stores, and cars owned by the patients.  Years later, medicines would make such a colony unnecessary.

As early as the second decade of the twentieth century a church was planned to honor Stowe, Vermont’s famous son.  But it wasn’t until Rev. Francis McDonough arrived in Stowe 1947 that the dream became a reality. With the help of Maria von Trapp of Sound of Music fame, Father McDonough broke ground for the church in 1948. A practical reason also existed for erecting a new church.  Until then, Stowe’s worshippers spent Sunday mornings in the basement of the town hall.

Raising public awareness about Brother Dutton, who was also a Civil War soldier and businessman during his 88 years, was one of Father McDonough’s prime goals.  He intended to fully use the church’s exterior walls to get the message across.

The thick-lined, lively paintings are reminiscent of the French painter, George Rouaultm, whose student, Andre Girard, painted the church’s walls and interior, asking only for paint and a place to stay.  Using passages from the book, Damien the Leper, and a booklet by Father McDonough, Girard portrayed events in the colony.  At first glance, the drawings may seem primitive, but the feelings they represent radiate through the outward simplicity.

The murals touch upon moments of hope, despair, solace, and few displays of joy.  In a number of scenes, gaunt-faced lepers surround or lean toward the figures of Damien and Dutton, the leper’s last two slivers of hope and decency.  Another mural shows a sometimes-daily occurrence: a leper, wrapped in a shroud, being lowered into a grave.  One scene shows a pained Dutton kneeling at the bier of the dead Father Damien.

The terror that leprosy induced in others and the sense of abandonment it instilled in the lepers is powerfully depicted.  In one mural, a dark figure stands on the shore, his arms raised in fury at a distant schooner.  Small objects dot the water.  Fearful of landing, sailors at times simply threw supplies for the colony into the ocean hoping the currents would carry them ashore.  No wonder those sent to Kalawao called it “the living tomb.”

Yet Dutton, for all his dedication to Kalawao, never lost interest in the wider world.  He wrote hundreds of letters and remained a true patriot at heart.  At the start of World War I, he asked to lead his old Civil War regiment into battle.  Turned down, he sent his binoculars instead.  Franklin Roosevelt, then Secretary of the Navy, returned them after the war and said they had found honorable duty aboard a destroyer.

The final mural shows how Dutton’s fame had spread.  He stands on the shore, the American flag waving above him, a line of ships on the horizon.  In 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt, at Dutton’s request, diverted the Great White Fleet from its around-the-world showcase of American power so it could pass before the colony.  As the fleet steamed past, each of the sixteen battleships, the U.S.S. Vermont among them, dipped their flags to Dutton and the excited lepers around him.

Visitors to Stowe should be sure to enter the church.  The faces, so prominent on the outside of the church, are carried inside and cover every inch of the ceiling.  But here, the lines are more delicate, the faces more joyous and unblemished, as though released from their torment.

Dutton died in March 1931.  Vermont, for which he always retained a special feeling, even to the point of adding pictures of Stowe to his letters, didn’t forget him.  In 1952, the Trapp Family Singers visited Molokai and sang over his grave.

“Gently, Johannes placed our Mount Mansfield pine wreath at the foot of the cross,” wrote Maria von Trapp.  “With Father McDonough leading, each one of us added a lei to the grave and whispered, ‘Aloha Brother Joseph Dutton.  Greetings from Stowe.'”

The Blessed Sacrament Church is located one mile north from the center of Stowe along Route 108.  You can view the murals and enter the church during the daytime hours.  There is no fee.

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