‘She Lives With Him’

Posted on May 02, 2024 in: General News

‘She Lives With Him’

A cause for canonization has opened for Michelle Duppong, a North Dakota farmgirl and FOCUS missionary from a Knights of Columbus family

By Patti Armstrong



What’s it like to call your little sister a Servant of God as the Church investigates her for possible sainthood? Jeff Duppong, who was present when Bishop David Kagan of Bismarck, North Dakota, opened the canonization cause of his sister Michelle in 2022, admits, “There’s a surrealness to the whole thing.”

“Not many people have a ‘Servant of God’ sister,” said Jeff, a member of Sts. Ann and Joachim Council 11930 in Fargo. “That’s the thing that gives the story an appeal; it can happen with just normal people.”

Michelle Duppong grew up on a farm in Haymarsh, North Dakota, the fourth of six children. Ken Duppong, a Knight of Columbus for nearly 50 years, and his wife, Mary Ann, raised their family to work hard, make time for fun, and, above all, to love their Catholic faith.

That faith became the cornerstone of Michelle’s life. Following college, she served six years as a FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) missionary and then worked as director of adult faith formation for the Diocese of Bismarck. And when she was diagnosed with cancer in December 2014, it was Michelle’s faith that carried her to the end and drew others to her. She died Christmas Day 2015 at age 31.

Soon after presiding over Michelle’s funeral, Bishop Kagan began receiving letters from people attesting to the holy influence Michelle had on them both before and after her death. He officially opened the cause for her canonization during Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit on All Saints Day, Nov. 1, 2022.

“One of the dangers is that this sermon will become something of an obituary — and it’s not,” Bishop Kagan said in his homily. “Michelle lives. She no longer is with us physically, but it is our faith and our hope … with that confidence which only God can give us … that she lives with him. And it is now for us to do our best so that the entire Church universal in time will come to know and to love her as we do.”


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

Michelle’s older sister Sara fondly remembers working alongside Michelle as they did their chores. They would play in between such tasks as weeding the tree rows and harvesting potatoes, and listened to oldies music while shucking corn.

“One time, Michelle lost a watch she had gotten for a present somewhere in the pasture,” Sara recalled. “How were we going to find this watch in the middle of the pasture? We said a prayer to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and she found it.”

Another time, they surprised some relatives who had arrived for a visit by coming in from herding sheep in the rain covered in mud.

With their dad a member of Bishop Ryan Council 4004 in Glen Ullin, Knights of Columbus activities were part of the family culture. Sara recalls entering a K of C Christmas display contest with Michelle when they were teenagers.

“I was the ringleader and Michelle was my helper, putting up a Nativity scene and lights outside,” she said. “We lived out in the middle of nowhere, so who was going to see it? But we won first place for our dad’s council.”

Fourteen-year-old Michelle also won first place in a statewide K of C pro-life contest with a poem titled “Rose of Life.” The final stanza read: “The Creator alone has the power, / To know when to pluck His precious flower. / The bud, the bloom, the withering petal … / In this mankind must not meddle. / Only He knows the perfect hour.”

“She drew a rose and wrote the poem in calligraphy,” Mary Ann said. “Michelle had taught herself calligraphy just for the contest.” It was just one example, she said, of the effort Michelle put into everything she did.


After high school, where she was senior class president and valedictorian, Michelle went to North Dakota State University. It was during her junior year there that Michelle first encountered FOCUS through her active involvement with the Newman Center. She became a FOCUS missionary after graduating in 2006 and mentored hundreds of students on four campuses over the next six years, bringing students to the Catholic faith and even influencing young men and women in their vocations.

John Wanner, Michelle’s uncle and godfather, and a member of Montrose (Colorado) Council 1188, credits Michelle with inspiring his children to become involved with FOCUS in college and deepening their faith.

“She was joyful and fun-loving, but her faith was by far number one,” Wanner said.

Stephany Anderson was a freshman and sophomore at South Dakota State University when Michelle served there as a FOCUS missionary. They remained friends after Michelle left, and Anderson joined FOCUS herself after graduation.

“Michelle was an example of joyful sacrifice and missionary zeal,” she said. “Part of outreach on campus was hosting events to meet new people and invite them into a deeper relationship with Jesus. I remember Michelle seeking out the new faces and spending intentional time with those who needed a friend. She, along with all the missionaries, modeled for me what it looked like to have the mission of Jesus always at the forefront of my mind and heart.”

Michelle and the other FOCUS missionaries invited students to join them for a daily Holy Hour at the Newman Center.

“Michelle spent the first part of adoration down on her knees with her head bowed all the way to the floor,” Anderson recalled. “It was a level of devotion and love for the Lord that I had not seen. It deeply struck me that she truly believed this was Jesus, and all her strength and love were drawn from this well.”

Bishop Kagan witnessed the same piety when Michelle became the director of adult faith formation for his diocese. “What I remember best of Michelle was her abiding love for the Mass,” he said. “She walked from her apartment every morning to Mass, which I celebrated at 6:30 a.m. She would come early and spend time in quiet prayer in my chapel. She attended with such reverence and received holy Communion, and then would stay after Mass in the chapel for thanksgiving.”

;“She exuded a genuine love for Jesus and for others but was never showy about it,” he continued. “Wherever she went around our diocese, she wanted only to help others love Jesus and the Church, and in it, to find their true home.”


In the fall of 2014, Michelle was diagnosed with ovarian cysts after experiencing sharp pains in her abdomen for several months. “She was told it was nothing serious and they might even dissolve on their own,” recalled Mary Ann.

Feeling no relief by mid-December, Michelle scheduled outpatient surgery for Dec. 29 to remove the cysts. But the surgeon was shocked to discover Michelle’s abdomen was full of cancer. It was Stage 4. “Michelle was told there was nothing they could do,” her mother said. “They recommended she go home for hospice care.”

Michelle accepted the prognosis with serenity. “Her attitude was, ‘If God wants me to go through this, I will go through this,’” Mary Ann said.

In a letter she wrote to Jesus two months before she died, Michelle thanked him for the gift of her life, for his love and mercy, and for her Catholic faith. “If you take me home soon,” she wrote, “please fill my family and friends, along with the multitudes who have been lifting me up in prayer, with joy and peace, knowing that your love wins in the end.”

The doctors initially gave her two months, but Michelle lived almost a year after the diagnosis and continued to have an impact on many people. “Her Caring Bridge page alone had a quarter of a million hits,” Jeff said, referring to the website through which the Duppongs kept friends and relatives updated on her condition. “Some people were just following her story, seeing how she was touching lives.”

Ken acknowledged that even with faith, it was painful to watch the suffering his daughter endured.

“There was one time at Mayo Clinic in Rochester when she said that Jesus wanted her in the garden with him,” he recalled. “We knew what garden that was. It was like a sword in our heart.”

The morning after Michelle’s death on Dec. 25, 2015, her sister Lisa shared with the family that she had heard her voice, sounding radiant, say, “Leese, it’s beautiful.”

“Things like that give you comfort,” said Ken, who is currently serving his fifth term as grand knight of Council 4004.

Another source of comfort is the growing devotion to Michelle that led to the opening of her cause. Right now, the cause is in the diocesan investigation phase. When that is complete, it will be forwarded to the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints at the Vatican. If approved, it will proceed for possible beatification and canonization, which is simply the Church’s declaration that a person is united to God in heaven.

And that was always and only Michelle’s goal.

“She felt you had to try every day to win heaven,” Ken said. “Once I said to Michelle, ‘I just hope I make the cut off to purgatory,’ and she said, ‘No, Dad, you don’t want to waste time in purgatory; you want to go straight to heaven.’”

She expressed the same longing in the letter she wrote to Jesus in her final weeks: “Jesus, I not only want to be a saint, but I want to be a great saint that leads others to you — all for your greater honor and glory, of course!”


PATTI ARMSTRONG is an author and journalist based in Bismarck, N.D.