Blessed Sacrament Church
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More Travel Stories:
A Glimpse into
the World of Kalawao
By Joseph Yenkavitch
Sometimes a small stop on a journey can open up a larger world.
Recently, while visiting Stowe, Vermont, I came across the Blessed Sacrament
Church. It’s an unassuming church tucked in 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. No. You’re going to have
to study the outside walls of the church itself.
Twelve murals adorn the two long sides of the church. They seem crude, almost
childlike, but you’ll be 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 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.
Most people are more familiar with
Father Damien de Veuster who first
organized the Kalawao colony, than
Joseph Dutton. Part of the reason,
beyond the work Father Damien did,
lay in his early death from the disease
he had hoped to conquer. He became
the face of what seemed a hopeless
But Dutton, who arrived unannounced at Kalawao on July 29, 1886, ready to
fulfill his desire for a life of penance, proved equally dedicated. Within three
years Damien had died and Dutton gladly shouldered the burden. For over
forty years he never wavered, washing sores, dealing with ulcers, doing
rudimentary surgery, building, and writing to presidents, princes and medical
people for help. He never left the Kalaupapa peninsula where Kalawao was
As early as the second decade of the twentieth century a church had been
planned to honor Stowe’s famous son. But it wasn’t until the arrival of the Rev.
Francis McDonough in 1947, with help from the late Maria von Trapp of Sound
of Music fame, that the dream became a reality. A practical reason also existed
for erecting a new church. Up until then Stowe’s worshippers had to spend
Sunday mornings in the basement of the town hall.
Letting the public know of Brother Dutton, who moved through half his eighty-
eight years as a successful Civil War soldier and businessman and the last half
as a penitent lay brother, remained a prime goal of Father McDonough. And he
intended to use fully the church’s exterior walls to get the message across.
The thick-lined, lively paintings are reminiscent of the French painter, George
Rouault. His student, Andre Girard, stepped forward after the church had been
completed and offered to paint the 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 like good primitive paintings the feelings
they’re meant to represent radiate from the outward simplicity.
The murals touch upon moments of hope, despair, and solace. You’ll notice 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 as a leper,
wrapped in a shroud, is lowered into a grave. One particular scene shows a
pained Dutton kneeling at the bier of the dead Damien.
The terror leprosy induced in others and the sense of abandonment it instilled in
the lepers is shown powerfully. A dark figure stands on 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 his 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 voyage showcasing 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.
Be sure to enter the church. The faces so prominent on the outside are carried
inside covering every inch of the ceiling. But now 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’s no fee.
About the Author: Joseph Yenkavitch is a Vermont-based freelance writer. He
has written for the Burlington Business Digest, USAir, Independent Living,
Military History and Tourist Travel Online. He was a middle school teacher and
has published short stories and a science fiction novel, On A Distant World, for