FARGO — News began spreading last month that we may have a bona fide saint among us.
Michelle Duppong, who grew up in a farming community in western North Dakota and died of cancer on Christmas 2015 at age 31, has been singled out by Bismarck’s Catholic bishop as having lived a life of heroic virtue, like every canonized saint over 2,000 years of Christendom.
Throughout the centuries, only 11 formally recognized saints have been from the United States, and none from the Dakotas. But if the Vatican finds Bishop David Kagan’s assessment sound after thoroughly investigating her life, North Dakota will break new spiritual ground.
The three siblings of Michelle’s who live in the Fargo area shared reflections on their sister, revealing how even the most ordinary life can become extraordinary, and no one is beyond sanctity’s reach.
A little sister’s perspective
Kalene Jaeger, the youngest of the six Duppong children, saw the manifestations of holiness in her sister Michelle in childhood, recalling a night the children, alone for a few hours, noticed smoke coming from the basement, and ran to get their prized possessions before awaiting calamity outside.
While Kalene grabbed her piggy bank and blanket, she says, Michelle clung to her “religious junk box” filled with prayer cards, Rosaries and religious medals.
“There were also the typical stories, like how she chopped up my hair as a toddler, and pushed me down the stairs in my stroller,” Kalene says. And yet, “Looking back, I can’t think of any huge personality flaw.”
As a senior at North Dakota State University, Michelle took Kalene, a freshman, under her wing, insisting she schedule her classes around daily Mass. She also helped orchestrate a suitable roommate for her — the little sister of her roommate.
“That was just how she was — a little bit of that bossy mother hen — but it was the best thing she probably did for me at that point,” Kalene says. “She was not overbearing, but firm, and because of her, I fell into the Newman Center crowd right away.” Read more from faith writer Roxane B. Salonen
There, Michelle’s “desire for souls and others really flourished,” she says, recalling how Michelle coerced her into the talent show. “I was so embarrassed, and Michelle was shy, too,” she adds, “but her desire to share the light of Christ made her come out of herself.”
Post-graduation, Michelle worked first as a Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) missionary, including at the University of Lincoln-Nebraska, where Kalene spent spring break with her. Instead of partying, the two took in sights such as the “Pink Sisters,” an order of contemplative nuns who wear pink habits.
“She was very purposeful in how she lived, very humbly, never complaining,” Kalene says. Right and wrong were paramount considerations; Michelle refused to balk on even small matters, like exceeding the speed limit even a bit.
Though living in the shadow of such an exemplary sister could be challenging, Kalene says, she came to greatly appreciate Michelle’s missionary heart and ability to reach people on their level. And in her suffering, she realized just how special Michelle really was.
“I didn’t see how someone like her couldn’t be in heaven because of how much she turned her suffering into redemption for others.”
She’s humbled to consider her sister’s possible canonization. “To hear that news and explain it to the kids, ‘Hey guys, Aunt Michelle might be a saint’… it’s the kind of a thing you never imagined saying,” Kalene muses. “But it’s also a blessing.”
Michelle’s example also offers hope, she says, that we “don’t have to be a St. Francis or St. Clare or Joan of Arc to impact others. We have modern examples of being saints through these small, everyday things.”
A big brother’s perspective
Jeff Duppong, the eldest sibling, felt distanced from Michelle for much of their lives, given the eight-year age gap. “When I went off to college, she was only 10.”
But he can describe what formed her growing up on a farm — the only home Michelle, born in Denver, knew after the family’s return to North Dakota in her infancy.
“It was a lot of hard work,” he says, noting the care needed for the chickens, sheep and cattle, along with the wheat and vegetable gardens. Their best friends were one another and nearby cousins; sibling rivalry was minimal; and long-term resentments, nonexistent.
Of the lot, Michelle was pretty average, he says.
“You wouldn’t see her walking around levitating off the ground,” he chuckled. But she was a good person, and charitably candid. “She had a lot of integrity.”
Her life and example also highlight the virtues of people in North Dakota, he adds; their hard-working, straight-shooting ways and good hearts, “which Michelle took to the nth degree.”
“I don’t want to paint the picture that all she did was church and ministry,” Jeff says. When Michelle visited him the year before her illness, they attended a concert at one of the bars in downtown Fargo. “She liked to have fun.”
And what of possibly being the brother of a saint? Jeff agreed with a co-worker who, when considering this, said Jeff wasn’t even in the top 12 of nice people he knows. “I’m definitely several levels below where she was.”
Whether the impending process ends with canonization, Jeff says, “I know who Michelle was and is, so none of that’s going to change.”
Sadly, her illness emerged when Jeff was engaged to be married to his wife, Marissa. Michelle was to be a bridesmaid in his wedding, but she passed a week before.
Her painful end, though difficult, revealed her character, Jeff says, calling Michelle’s offering of her suffering for others in need of grace “a real gift.”
A big sister’s perspective
Lisa Gray, the eldest sister, admits she often took cues from Michelle. “I’d see how she was doing her schoolwork first, but I would be clowning around, waiting until the last minute.”
Despite being fairly ordinary, she says, Michelle exhibited some particularly beautiful qualities — a love for nature and desire to share the joys of farm life with others. She also attributes descriptions like “hard-working, fun-loving and strong in character and spirit” to Michelle, who “could be just as mischievous as the rest, and either serious or silly.”
Michelle received her first Communion at a small country church near their property, St. Clements, near where she’s buried, Lisa shares. “The hill overlooks our farm, and it’s only a quarter of a mile walking distance away.”
Seeing the faith their lives revolved around as a treasure, Lisa says they were fortunate their parents, Ken and Mary Ann, taught them that “a life lived well had to include a regular practice of our faith.”
“Our livelihood also depended on the blessings of nature,” she adds, “so there was always that deep connection.”
In college, Lisa saw Michelle “really blossoming in her faith, becoming attuned to truth.” When ministering to fellow college students, she says, Michelle’s genuineness really shone.
Toward the end, Lisa even experienced a moment of mercy from her little sister in asking forgiveness for a past offense. “It was lightening for me to feel that rush,” she says. “She was so gracious about it, and even though deathly ill, did not write it off as unimportant.”
“Shelly,” as she calls her, was emaciated from cancer’s toll in the end. “Watching her shrivel up into that nothingness was really hard,” she says. So, when news came that she could become a canonized saint, Lisa wasn’t shocked.
“The mystical experience I had watching my sister die cannot be compared to anything else I’ve experienced or felt in my adult life.”
She credits their sister Renae Duppong, a trained nurse, for standing by Michelle almost constantly in those days. “A lot of saints had their helpers,” Lisa says. “I don’t think she’d be in heaven without Renae.”
When Michelle took her last breath, she was encircled by a family who’d withheld celebrating Jesus’ birthday, praying for a miracle. It came, just differently than hoped.
“I saw my sister racing toward heaven,” Lisa says, “and I knew she was a saint that day; that she’d been transformed into something radiant, after being the face of the suffering Christ.”
Michelle “radically transformed the world by her life,” Lisa adds. “There are plenty of saints, outside of those recognized in the canon, and I believe in every sense that they are with God.”
Possibly by month’s end, a Mass to formally launch the canonization process will be celebrated.
“I get this front-row seat of something I shouldn’t be privileged to see,” Lisa says. “I just want to take it all in… every step of the way.”
Lisa delights that many others will be touched by “Shell.”
“She lived an ordinary, everyday life,” she said, with her extraordinariness showing “in her surrender to the Lord, and offering her life back to him, with the cutest smile that any small kid — and big kid — could give.”
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Aug. 26, 2022.]