Glorious Janitor: The Life of Brother Joseph

The janitors, doormen, and apartment superintendents in my parish and I have a particular fraternal bond, for we are situated to observe the private lives of many. They are called upon at inconvenient hours, to do tasks and handle emergencies, uncongenial to those in some other lines of work. The term “janitor” is related to the Roman god Janus who guarded doorways, protecting the goings in and out of people as well as of years themselves and transitions in one’s life, which is how we get the month January.  Ovid and Cicero were of the opinion that the name Januarius was derived from the Latin verb “ire” meaning “to go,” which makes sense, with relation to doors and years. The Vatican Museum has a statue of Janus Bifrons, so called because he has two faces, and that is an advantage if you have to keep an eye, or eyes, out for people. The pagan god is only on display in the Vatican for aesthetic and anthropological reasons, and no one lights candles before it, but the name was not uncommon among Christians, and so we have the patron martyr of Naples whose blood liquefies.

It would also seem that janitorial service is a good school of sanctity:  it has produced, among others, Saint Martin de Porres and St. André Bessette, and the Venerable Solanus Casey. After all, “I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness. (Psalm 84:10).”  That is the King James translation, while the Douay-Rheims renders “janitor” as “abject,” indicating that janitors did not enjoy much prestige among some translators.  But both are better than the absurdity that appears in the New Jerusalem Bible:  “Have you met the janitors of Shadowland? (Job 3:8-17).” It paints a picture of people pushing brooms in an amusement park.

As for Janus, to be called two faced if you are not a god is not a compliment. When called two-faced by a journalist, Abraham Lincoln asked his secretary, “If I had two faces, do you think this is the one I’d be wearing?” Joseph Dutton was a janitor, and anything but two-faced in the weak sense. With the recent canonization of Marianne Cope, his name has cropped up obliquely. It may be that he is a saint above and could qualify for official recognition as such someday here below.

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He was given the name Ira when he was born on April 27, 1843 to Methodist parents in Stowe, Vermont.  It was the same day that another native Vermonter, the Mormon founder Joseph Smith, married his scribe William Clayton in Nauvoo, Illinois to a second wife, Clayton’s own sister-in-law. His family moved to Ianesville, Wisconsin four years later, where his life was one of conventional piety. As a teenager he worked in a library and taught in Sunday school. Caught up in the excitement of recruiting bands at the start of the Civil War, he enlisted in the 13th Wisconsin Infantry, showing business prowess as a quartermaster as well as nursing the wounded and burying the dead. After the war he stayed on as a volunteer, tracing the remains of missing soldiers and later, in the War Department, settling the claims of survivors. When he was discharged in 1866 as a Captain, only a paucity of  commissions deterred the temptation to make a career in the Army, and for the next twenty years he took on various kinds of work, including jobs in an Alabaman distillery and a railroad in Tennessee.

He had impetuously married  a woman he met in the war. Later on, he called the marriage “one of those things I have tried to forget.”  Failing to reform her unstable habits which brought him to the brink of bankruptcy, and enduring her infidelities about which he had been warned, he finally filed for divorce in 1881 long after she had left him for another man. Disconsolate over the failed marriage, and haunted by memories of the war, he became a severe alcoholic, and spent ten years in a “drunken stupor” often collapsed in gutters. This was a time, he said,  of “sinful capers.” But he was able to time his drinking for the evenings so that he still worked with discipline. “I never injured anyone but myself.”  This, he admitted, was a kind of two-faced Janus existence, which one day in 1876 he vowed to quit, and he never drank from that time on. And as Janus was the god of transitions, he made a spiritual change too: the influence of Catholic friends brought him to study the Faith and on his fortieth birthday he was received into the Church, changing his name to Joseph.

A desire to do penance for the rest of life drew him to the Trappist monastery in Gethsemane, Kentucky, which had been founded in 1848 and was still small and rather unstable in governance. He always remained grateful for the twenty months he spent there, remembering the monastery in his will, and from then calling himself “Brother Joseph”  although he never took Religious vows. In his process of discernment, he decided that he was called to a penitential but  active life.

The work of Father Damien de Veuster among the lepers of Molokai was already well known, and, without any notice, he sailed from San Francisco to Hawaii in the summer of 1886. Transferring to a boatload of lepers, he arrived at Molokai, to the surprise and consternation of Father Damien who told him that he could not afford to pay him anything. Brother Joseph expected no pay and supported himself until he died in 1931. His days were spent as a janitor, cleaning the primitive shelters, scrubbing floors, while also building latrines and outbuildings and bandaging sores, as well as helping Mother Marianne Cope in keeping records and organizing arriving patients. Like Mother Marianne and unlike Father Damien, he never contracted Hansen’s Disease. When Theodore Roosevelt  had the ships of the Great White Fleet salute the grave of Father Damien as they sailed by, Brother Joseph waved a large American flag from shore.  Always the patriot, even at the age of 74 he tried to enlist in the Army at the outbreak of the First World War, trying on his old Civil War sword-belt before he was turned down.

In 1889, Father Damien said, “I can die now. Brother Joseph will take care of my orphans.”  As he grew older, Brother Joseph was said to become more radiant in spirit and when he was 83 he confessed: “I am ashamed to think that I am inclined to be jolly. Often we don’t know that our Lord ever laughed, and here my laugh is ready to burst out any minute.”

There actually was widespread interest in Brother Joseph in his later years, and he received letters, including one from President Harding in 1923, lauding his work. But he never left Molokai, and he is buried next to the man now known as Saint Damien.  The glorious janitor wrote, “It seems a mere accident that I ever heard of this place, and it might never have happened again.”  Of course it was not an accident at all.


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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