‘The Joy of Knowing Jesus’: The Holy Witness of Michelle Duppong

As her cause for canonization gets underway, family and friends recall her evangelization efforts and acceptance of God’s will.

Bismarck Bishop David Kagan has announced the diocesan investigation that could lead to Michelle Duppong’s beatification and canonization.
Bismarck Bishop David Kagan has announced the diocesan investigation that could lead to Michelle Duppong’s beatification and canonization. (photo: Courtesy of the Duppong family)

During treatment for a cancer that never relented, a hospital staff member asked 31-year-old Michelle Duppong from Haymarsh, North Dakota, what her perfect day would look like. She thought but a moment before her soft blue eyes lit up. “Four-wheeling at our farm in the pastures and picnicking in the hills.”

“She could have mentioned so many amazing things that she’s done, but the simplicity of her answer touched our heart,” her mother, Mary Ann Duppong, explained to the Register. “She chose our farm at Haymarsh for her perfect day. That is why we know she is happy to have her burial spot in the cemetery overlooking St. Clement’s and our farm.” 

It was upon learning of an impromptu pilgrimage to Michelle’s gravesite that Mary Ann and her husband, Ken, first heard that a cause of canonization would open for their daughter, who died from cancer on Dec. 25, 2015, a year after her diagnosis. Michelle had been serving as the director of adult faith formation for the Diocese of Bismarck, North Dakota, and before that had worked as a Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) missionary for six years at four colleges.

Msgr. James Shea, president of the University of Mary in Bismarck, called Mary Ann the evening of June 15 to let her know that an impromptu pilgrimage was headed to the cemetery to visit Michelle’s gravesite. Earlier that day, during the annual commissioning Mass celebrated at the University of Mary for new FOCUS missionaries, Bismarck Bishop David Kagan had announced the plan to open a diocesan investigation that could lead to Michelle’s beatification and canonization, and Msgr. Shea spontaneously invited everyone to join him in pilgrimage to St. Clement’s cemetery, 60 miles from Bismarck, to visit Michelle’s grave. Around 500 people, including five priests, prayed the Rosary there that night and took turns privately praying for Michelle’s intercession.

Msgr. Shea explained to the Register that he had always appreciated Michelle’s enthusiasm for evangelization. Her last year in FOCUS was as part of the 2012 inaugural team at the University of Mary to mentor students in the faith. 

“Michele was very zealous but eminently practical, not idealistic,” he said. “She had an unwavering faith in the power of God and the intercession of the Blessed Mother to bring souls to Jesus. This was her main concern.”

Since her death, Msgr. Shea said he has often prayed privately to Michelle, asking help “for those who come to the University of Mary — those with faith, for it to deepen, and those who come without faith to gain it.

“One of the great lessons that Michelle’s life imparts upon us,” he told the Register, “was the beautiful way that she entered into the suffering of Jesus. How beautiful to have the example of someone who accepted, with serenity, both the joys and suffering of her life. Michelle never forgot about the power of redemptive suffering.”


‘Joyful Faith’

“Michelle’s holiness of life and love for God certainly touched us here in the Diocese of Bismarck, at the University of Mary, and throughout FOCUS, but hers is a witness which should also be shared with the universal Church,” Bishop Kagan said during his announcement. He had hired Michelle as the diocesan director of faith formation, and she had worked with him in creating the “Thirst Conferences” that continue to this day, bringing in national Catholic speakers to inspire the faithful. 

Not long after Bishop Kagan had celebrated Michelle’s funeral Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Bismarck, he began receiving notes and letters from people about Michelle’s influence in their lives. “What inspired me about Michelle and prompted me to take this first step were her two most obvious virtues: her joyful faith and her unconditional acceptance of God’s will for her,” Bishop Kagan told the Register. “As time goes on and our investigation progresses, that will be even more evident to all.”

Her main desire, Bishop Kagan said, was to share the joy of knowing Jesus. “Our Church, and especially our culture, needs models of everyday holiness — just as Michelle has shown us,” he said. “Especially our young men and women, married or single, need Michelle’s example of faith, hope and charity. They need to know and see that real virtue is something for them, and it is never outdated.”

Michelle Duppong first Communion
Family and friends of Michelle Duppong recall her strong faith. Here, she is shown on the occasion of her first Communion. | Courtesy of the Duppong family


 FOCUS Missionary

Curtis Martin, founder and CEO of FOCUS, explained: “When Michelle and her sister Renae were in FOCUS, we all knew one another. It was founded in 1998, and Michelle joined in 2006, when we had about 150 missionaries. Today, there are 900.”

Michelle stood out, he said, because she was always building up others and never complained. “She was gracious, even when things were difficult,” Martin said. “Michelle had learned how to suffer and never got distracted by it. The spectacular secret is that while Jesus left us in awe with his miracles and wowed us with his words, the salvation he won for us came through suffering. “

Now that Michelle is on the other side of the veil, Martin said that he and his family often pray for her intercession, and he asks Michelle to teach him how to suffer. “She did that beautifully,” he said. “I really believe that Jesus Christ is asking this generation to be heroes, and you cannot be a hero without suffering.”

A friend of Michelle’s, former FOCUS missionary Rebekah Martin, lives near Napoleon, North Dakota, with her husband, Lucas, and their five children. Rebekah and Michelle were roommates at North Dakota State University from 2002 to 2006 and worked together in FOCUS at the University of South Dakota for the 2009-2010 school year.

Looking back, Rebekah said it makes perfect sense that Michelle would be considered for sainthood. “She was bold in sharing her faith,” Rebekah said. “I remember, for her first assignment in speech class, she gave a speech defending the priesthood against the attacks that were happening during that time over the scandals, saying that the vast majority of the priesthood was without accusation.”

But Michelle knew how to have fun, too, according to Rebekah. “She laughed easily, was quick with a joke, and had a knack for finding humor in the ordinary. My favorite memories are of her laughing so hard, trying to say something, but not being able to get the words out. She was so full of life!”

Rebekah described Michelle as a humble leader. “As a FOCUS team director, she cared first for the needs of her teammates. She wanted us to thrive. She encouraged her teammates to offer up mortifications, to intentionally offer up sufferings and inconveniences for the souls we were trying to reach. Michelle realized, even then, at least to some extent, the value of suffering united with Jesus.” 

Rebekah noted that Michelle was always concerned for others. “I have an example of this. In September, we attended her benefit ball. My birthday had been a couple days before. She saw me and said in her sweet voice, ‘Beka! How was your birthday?’ I was just so touched that after all she had been through at that point, and though she was visibly tired, she remembered my birthday and chose to focus on me and how I was doing.”


Faith Foundation

Mary Ann said Michelle grew up working hard on the family farm. “That exposure to yard and garden work is probably why Michelle and two other daughters — three out of our six children — were horticulture majors,” she said. When there were extra vegetables, Michelle and her sisters sold them in town after Saturday morning Mass. 

Although Michelle was valedictorian and president of her senior class, Mary Ann said that she was not particularly engaged in a social life with her peers and was always happy to go along with her family to occasional Catholic conferences that included speakers, Mass and adoration — much like the “Thirst Conferences” Michelle was later to help plan. Mary Ann pointed out that Michelle enjoyed sharing her Jan. 25 birthday with the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, the great evangelizer, as evangelizing was a mission she also lived. 


Faithful Perseverance Through Pain

It was in the fall of 2014 that Michelle began experiencing sharp pains in her abdomen. “Ovarian cysts” was the diagnosis. “Nothing serious, and they might even dissolve on their own,” she was told.

By mid-December, Michelle was in agony. After a second ultrasound, out-patient surgery was scheduled for Dec. 29 to remove the cysts. But the surgeon was shocked when she opened Michelle up. Her abdomen was full of cancer. It was Stage 4. “Michelle, there isn’t anything we can do,” she was told by two doctors who recommended she go home for hospice care. 

“How long does she have?” Mary Ann asked, horrified.

“Two months,” was the answer. 

Thus began Michelle’s yearlong journey, fighting for her life while accepting God’s will every step of the way. Her sister Renae, who had a degree in nursing, accompanied her in her suffering as her personal nurse.

Over those 12 months, there were surgeries and hospital stays, until Michelle was sent home when there was nothing more that could be done. “Michelle was not one to blame anyone for anything,” Mary Ann said. “Her attitude was, ‘If God wants me to go through this, I will go through this.’” 

When Michelle entered hospice care, a family doctor asked Mary Ann: If they had to do it over again, did they think it was worth putting Michelle through all the medical procedures and pain to gain another 10 months? 

“You have no idea of how many lives she touched that last year,” Mary Ann responded. “Not only was Michelle a great witness of her deep faith, but she also used that time to offer her suffering for others. There were over 230,000 hits on her CaringBridge site that year, including strangers from across the country. How do you measure the good from that?”

Mary Ann said one of her most precious gifts from Michelle is a relic medal from the Shrine of the North American Martyrs in New York. “Michelle said that she believed a time was coming when we, too, should be ready, if we would be asked by Our Lord, to suffer martyrdom to pass on the faith. She told me that we need to be brave by putting on the ‘Armor of Faith.’”

“She gave everything,” her father Ken said. “Her whole year of suffering, the pain was non-stop. But it wasn’t just that year. Her whole life was dedicated to whatever Jesus wanted.” 

Ken said it was typical for hospital staff to be drawn to Michelle. “She would be concerned about their problems, not hers,” Ken said. An example he gave was when someone was upset that her husband had left her. “Michelle told her, ‘Forgive him and pray for him because you might be the only one who can help him.’” The woman came back later with joy and shared that she had found peace. 

According to Ken, Michelle’s attitude was that we should do everything we can while on earth to make it to heaven. “Whatever she did, she always did her best,” her father recalled.

Family members took turns gathering around Michelle’s bed the evening of Dec. 25, singing, praying and expressing their love. She took her last breath at 11:23pm.


‘Running to Jesus’

Her sister Lisa Gray, married to Brad and raising their seven children in Moorhead, Minnesota, said: “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.”

As Bishop Kagan pointed out to the Register, conducting a diocesan inquiry into a person’s life, virtues and reputation of holiness is just the first step of a long process that will include looking for indications of her intercessory power after her death. It is uncertain how long this initial phase will last. “The Church is always very careful in all such matters,” he noted. 

“I think all that we do regarding the life and death of Michelle is very much worth our time and efforts,” Bishop Kagan explained. “Michelle was a fine, Catholic young lady devoted to Jesus and his Church. Her one desire was to share with others the joy of knowing Jesus and loving him every day.”

Toward the end of her own earthly journey, Michelle’s dear aunt, Jean Wanner, was dying of brain cancer. “They cried and held each other,” Mary Ann recalled. “Jean told her that sometimes she didn’t feel Jesus with her. Michelle told her, ‘Sometimes, I don’t feel him either. Tell Jesus how you feel. He wants to know everything. Just turn to him.’”

“That’s what Michelle did,” Mary Ann said. “She told Jesus everything.”