Christmas Memories From Servant of God Michelle Duppong’s Mother

Only later did the North Dakota family learn that the former missionary and diocesan employee knew she would die on the Nativity of the Lord.

Michelle Duppong is held by her sisters (l to r) Kalene, Sara and Renae during Christmas 2007.
Michelle Duppong is held by her sisters (l to r) Kalene, Sara and Renae during Christmas 2007. (photo: Courtesy of Mary Ann Duppong)

On the night of Christmas Day 2015, Michelle Christine Duppong’s family gathered at her bedside, singing, praying and expressing their love. At 11:23pm, she quietly slipped into eternity, ending her yearlong battle with cancer. 

Michelle’s earthly life, now over, is being investigated by the Church since her cause for canonization was officially opened on Nov. 1, during the All Saints’ Day Mass, by Bishop David Kagan of the Bismarck Diocese in North Dakota. The former Fellowship of Catholic University Students’ missionary who had worked for the bishop as director of faith formation has now been given the title “Servant of God.” 

Bishop Kagan also presided over Michelle’s funeral. Almost immediately afterwards, her family and the diocese office began receiving cards and letters from people who knew Michelle or heard of her and were touched by her life. Some reported answers to prayers after asking for her intercession. 

As Christmas draws near, the Duppong family is filled with memories both sweet and sad of saying goodbye to their beloved daughter and sister. It is mixed with the realization that the world is now learning of the many ways Michelle brought so much light into the world. 

Mary Ann, Michelle’s mother, shared with the Register fond memories of their family Christmases. “We always had an Advent wreath and would attend Christmas Eve evening or midnight Mass and the next morning Christmas Mass, unless the roads were blocked. My side of the family had a tradition of a live Santa home visit, so we did some of that when our children were young. Usually, one of the uncles put on a costume and brought gifts to our home, or we went to one of the other relatives’ houses. 

“Christmas Eve supper was a simple meal of sloppy joes, and then we’d gather to sing Christmas songs. A knock on the door meant Santa had arrived, and he’d give each person a gift. There were cookies and treats and then evening Mass. On Christmas Day, there was a special meal, often with other guests.

“As our children grew older and learned how to play instruments, they entertained us with new songs and gathered around the piano to sing traditional Christmas songs for their grandparents. When Christmas started to mean kids coming home from college, it was dubbed the ‘Haymarsh Holiday Hoedown,’ scheduled sometime between Christmas and New Year’s.”

By then, the gathering expanded, including relatives, friends and neighbors, as well as elderly who were alone. “We sometimes had up to 60 people in our home.” The afternoon entertainment grew to include any ‘talent,’ even yo-yo tricks. Sometimes Ken — Michelle’s father — and their neighbor, Russell Gietzen, would play Amazing Grace together on their harmonicas. If weather permitted, there was sledding or tubing in the snow; and sometimes Russell brought a team of horses over and gave hayrides.

“I thought once they went off to college, they would not be interested in doing the ‘Hoedown’ anymore,” Mary Ann said, “but, instead, they really valued it and looked forward to the gathering.”

There was no Christmas party the year that Michelle was sick. After many hospital stays, she was home on hospice care. “By mid-December, Michelle was very weak and not talking much,” according to Mary Ann. “One day, I was sitting in a recliner next to Michelle’s bed reading as she appeared sleeping. Suddenly, Michelle sat up and said ‘Mom, we have to pray for [a particular person], Then she laid back down and shut her eyes. I don’t know where she got the strength to do that. And the last time she might have seen him was 15 years earlier.

“On a Tuesday night, three days before her death, our parish priest and a few parish friends and relatives came to our house. They stood in the hall outside of her room and sang some Christmas songs. ‘We love you, Michelle,’ one said upon leaving. Michelle could barely muster enough strength to respond, ‘Thank you,’ and smiled. 

“Their caroling meant so much to all of us,” Mary Ann said. Jean Wanner, Mary Ann’s dearest friend and sister-in-law, her husband Ken’s sister and a beloved aunt to Michelle, had died of cancer just two weeks earlier. Our hearts were aching.”

The family were all together for that last Christmas. “Throughout Christmas Day, we prayed our daily Rosary, a Chaplet of Mercy, a litany of other prayers together around her bedside, and sang traditional Christmas songs to her. Being sedated, Michelle no longer spoke or opened her eyes.”

Surrounded by family, Michelle breathed heavily and then drew her last breath. “It was a peaceful death,” Mary Ann said. “Some of us cried. It was a relief that her suffering here was over, but you are never ready to say goodbye. Lisa [Gray, her married sister] had gone in that day and told Michelle, ‘If you are going to go, I want a sign that you are in heaven.’” 

Lisa had shared earlier with the Register, “When I saw her taking her last breath, I was so happy for her. I was so proud of her. I had the feeling of her running to Jesus. It was not just the tragedy-of-the cancer story; people knew that Michelle was ‘marked.’ It was just part of her journey. I had a heart of knowledge that she was going to heaven on Christmas night.” Early the next morning, Lisa received a great consolation. “As I woke up, I heard her voice, ‘Leese, it’s beautiful.’ Her voice was radiant.” 

Only later did the Duppong family learn that Michelle knew she would die on Christmas. She had told one of the religious sisters from the Congregation of Teresian Carmelites who had helped her  during hospice care that she would die on Christmas Day.

Mary Ann explained that Michelle had learned from the Pietà Prayer Book that the greatest number of souls are taken [from purgatory] into heaven on Christmas Day at the Offertory at Mass. “Of course, that would be so much like Michelle,” she said. “If Michelle had a choice of when to die, she would want to go to heaven on Christmas Day to join in the celestial celebration.”

The year following Michelle’s death, the family was grieving her loss. Mary Ann shared a dramatic and unexpected moment that brought great comfort. “During the night on Dec. 23, 2016, I was sound asleep. At 5am, I woke up upon hearing Michelle speaking to me joyfully out loud like she was standing by my bedside. ‘Merry Christmas, Mom!’ I sat up in the bed. Was I dreaming? It was dark in the room except for the window’s moonlight. I looked about the room, at the clock and looked at Ken asleep in the shadows.

“Puzzled, I went to lay back down. Then I heard her voice again, saying in exactly in the same jovial manner, ‘Merry Christmas, Mom!’ I knew it was Michelle. The tone of her voice reassured me that she was so happy, and I peacefully went back to sleep.”

“Christmas will never be the same for us. Losing Michelle at such a young age and the trauma during her last year are unforgettable. Yet we realize how blessed we were to have her in our lives those 31 years and feel assured that she is rejoicing with all the saints and being with the Holy Family eternally,” Mary Ann reflected. 

“With the announcement of Michelle’s title of ‘Servant of God,’ our family humbly rejoices that Michelle’s life and work are not forgotten. We feel confident that she is still bringing souls to her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. ‘Merry Christmas!’ has taken on a new meaning for us each time we hear it. We thank God for his goodness for dwelling among us.”