Sainthood cause of former FOCUS missionary prompts flood of prayer requests

Michelle Christine Duppong is seen in this undated photo. She died from cancer Dec. 25, 2015, at age 31 while serving as the director of adult faith formation for the Diocese of Bismarck, N.D. Before that she was a missionary with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students for six years. On June 16, 2022, Bismarck Bishop David D. Kagan announced the opening of a diocesan investigation into Duppong's "holiness of life and love for God" for her possible canonization. (CNS photo/courtesy University of Mary)

BISMARCK, N.D. (OSV News) -- Michelle Duppong's family members get a lot of prayer requests, especially for healing from grave illnesses and dire prognoses, that ask for the intercession of the recently declared "Servant of God."

"It's amazing," Sara Stark, 41, Duppong's older sister, told OSV News. "I've gotten messages, and random people are reaching out on Facebook or emails. … It's a mix of people that I've known, that through that proximity are like, 'Can you ask your sister for help?'"

Duppong's mother, Mary Ann Duppong, 72, said prayer requests have increased since All Saints Day, Nov. 1, 2022, when Bishop David D. Kagan of Bismarck, North Dakota, officially opened her daughter's cause for canonization, bestowing on her the name "servant of God." Two weeks later, the U.S. bishops affirmed their support for the cause's advancement.

A former college missionary with the Denver-based Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) and adult faith formation director for the Bismarck diocese, Duppong died of cancer Christmas Day 2015 at age 31. This Jan. 25 would have been her 39th birthday.

Those who knew her emphasize her unwavering joy, down-to-earth personality and a "thirst for souls" that motivated her desire to share Jesus with others.

The fourth child of Ken and Mary Ann Duppong, Michelle Duppong was born in 1984 and grew up with her five siblings on a family farm in south-central North Dakota. Family members recall her as a cheerful, diligent child with a deep love for family, nature and Jesus.

After high school, Duppong attended North Dakota State University in Fargo to study horticulture. She was involved in campus ministry, and she connected with FOCUS, an apostolate dedicated to evangelizing college and university students, when the organization established a presence at the university in 2004, her junior year.

After Duppong graduated in 2006, she became a FOCUS missionary and, over the next six years, served at four campuses: University of Nebraska-Lincoln, South Dakota State University in Brookings, University of South Dakota in Vermillion and University of Mary in Bismarck.

Those who ministered with her were struck by her authenticity, simplicity and desire to do God's will. Duppong easily befriended students, shared her love for Jesus and explained the Catholic faith.

"It was just natural to her; it was who she was," Sarah Herth, 40, a FOCUS missionary with Duppong for a year in Lincoln, Nebraska, told OSV News. "She just had a very true and authentic desire to know the person that she was meeting."

Mark Bartek, who also got to know Duppong through FOCUS and served as her regional director, recalled her as someone who was "really, really good at friendship." She also deeply desired for people to know Jesus, he told OSV News.

One of his favorite memories of Duppong is when she bought a toy armor set, with a shield, sword and breastplate. On them, she wrote examples of physical mortifications, such as sleeping without a pillow, taking cold showers and skipping lunch. Then, with the description of the "armor of God" from Ephesians 6:10-18 in mind, she asked a few students she was mentoring to take a piece of armor, identify a person to pray for, and adopt the prescribed mortification for that person for a week. After that week, the students told her that they found the practice extremely hard.

"She (Duppong) said, 'That's because souls are attached to this now,'" said Bartek, 44, indicating that Duppong had a "recognition that the Lord will make use of suffering in order to bring souls closer. I think about that all the time in regards to her cancer, just that beautiful understanding that she had."

Bartek and Herth were among FOCUS missionaries who met Duppong's parents at this year's FOCUS-organized SEEK23 conference Jan. 2-6 in St. Louis. The conference included the screening of a FOCUS-produced documentary about Michelle titled "Thirst for Souls: the Michelle Duppong Story."

For two hours following the film, people shared with Ken and Mary Ann Duppong how their daughter's story had touched their lives. Some were "in tears saying that they had a conversion of heart and want to get closer to Jesus, and this (film) inspired them and gave them hope," Mary Ann said.

Both Herth and Bartek said they pray for Michelle Duppong's intercession -- as does Bishop Kagan, who presided at her funeral Mass and initiated her cause for sainthood, a formal recognition that she is in heaven.

"I always say, 'Now, Michelle, you know what I do as bishop because you worked here and we worked together long enough, so help me be the best bishop today I can be," he told OSV News. "I can say that she's praying for me, and I feel the power of her intercession."

When Duppong was finishing her work with FOCUS, she wrote a letter to Bishop Kagan, who had just been appointed to lead the Bismarck diocese in 2011. She told him that she wanted to serve his diocese in any way she could. He hired her as the director of adult faith formation. From the beginning, she impressed him with her zeal, organization and steadfast faith. She led parish missions, launched a podcast and spearheaded a three-day Eucharistic conference that drew thousands to the Bismarck Civic Center in 2013.

In December 2014, Duppong underwent surgery to address abdominal pain doctors believed was caused by ovarian cysts, only for the surgeon to discover pervasive cancer. That surgery began a year of medical treatment and what family members described as tremendous suffering.

Through it all, they prayed for a miracle. In January 2015, after a special time of prayer, Duppong told her family that she had heard Jesus tell her she would be healed. As her cancer progressed, she came to understand her healing would be spiritual, not physical. But she didn't reveal that to her family, not wanting to diminish their hope, Mary Ann Duppong said.

Despite her condition, Michelle Duppong never complained, her mother and sister said. Instead, she consistently focused on others, and she offered pain and procedures for the benefit of souls. Her joy and selflessness radiated to her visitors, medical team, hospital staff and beyond, including through a CaringBridge web journal that garnered more than 230,000 hits during her illness.

"She never once gave into that temptation to, so to speak, engage in self-pity," Bishop Kagan said. "As her sufferings increased, so did her willingness to bear the sufferings."

Duppong eventually returned to her childhood home on hospice care. She died late on Christmas night, surrounded by her family. After her death, they began to receive stories about how Duppong had impacted people's lives -- and increasingly, those stories included accounts of spiritual experiences and healings attributed to her posthumous intercession.

Bishop Kagan received those accounts, too, and they ultimately inspired him to begin a formal investigation into her life. The canonization process can be lengthy and is far from determined. If the diocesan phase determines that Duppong lived with "heroic virtue," collected materials would be sent to the Holy See's Dicastery for the Causes of Saints.

Materials would next undergo review and be sent to the pope, who may declare Duppong "venerable" for her heroic virtues. Then, a miracle must be verified before Duppong could be declared "blessed." A second verified miracle would be required for the title of "saint."

"We can't canonize people before the church does, but we certainly can laud their goodness," Bishop Kagan said. "Michelle was a good young woman who loved Christ, loved the church, and she really wanted to be a saint. And anyone who ever met her, I think, would come to that same conclusion."



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