Bishop David Kagan of Bismarck this week opened the canonization cause of Michelle Duppong, a Catholic woman who died in 2015 at age 31.
Michelle spent six years as a missionary for the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), serving in Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota. In 2012, she became the director of adult faith formation for the Bismarck diocese.
Michelle was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer in December 2014. She died a year later, on Christmas Day in 2015.
Many people who knew her say they loved her — and saw Christ in her. Brandon and Brittany Diegel are among those people.
The Diegels met Michelle in 2008 – she became their FOCUS team director in South Dakota. The couple told The Pillar they were struck by Michelle’s joy - and the way she offered up even small sufferings for the sake of souls.
The Diegels’ conversation with The Pillar is below. It has been edited for length and clarity.
What was Michelle like when you knew her?
Brittany: She was very joyful, very joyful. She loved the Lord of the Rings. She had a really beautiful desire for souls. She never seemed discouraged by the state of the world or the culture. She was always just very passionate, very joyful. She was a very strong leader, but in her own way. Her whole personality was very inviting, so it never felt like an imposition.
When I was on staff with her, I remember her talking about little ways she would sacrifice things. She would not have any condiments for one week. That was one way that she would sacrifice, just offer things up. And she got us interested in doing that. She would talk about it, and then my husband started offering things up for the week, just like her example.
Brandon: She was very quirky. She loved to watch Lord of the Rings. She was a very deep person, but also didn’t worry about making a fool of herself, like singing in front of a bunch of students. She was just very comfortable in her identity as a daughter of God, where she could just be fully herself at any time.
What sticks with you as you think back on Michelle’s life now?
Brittany: She was very pure. Not in a naïve way, but very holy and virtuous. Sometimes it was a little irritating to me, because she was just so much more virtuous than me. She was very reverent, I remember when she would pray, it was with such passion.
And just the way that everything about her was so inviting. Sometimes FOCUS would do large group events. And one time we did an All Saints party, and we all dressed as saints. And there was another big party on campus at the same time, which attracted a big crowd of people, and not everyone was dressed as a saints, if you can imagine on a college campus. And she was just right in the middle, talking to people, not afraid of the culture. Just very much herself.
Brandon: I think the primary thing that sticks with me is her joy and peace in any situation. We had some pretty difficult times starting a new FOCUS team on a new campus. As the team director, she carried a lot of that burden, but you would never know it. She just had this true peace and joy that radiated from her.
In a lot of ways, Michelle’s life was unremarkable. She was a FOCUS missionary and worked for a diocese. She died when she was 31. Why do you think her sainthood cause is being opened?
Brittany: I think that even though she died young, in the short time that she was here, she had a profound impact on a lot of people, because she did have this beautiful desire for souls, and she was just so pure and joyful.
Her whole career path was aimed at pursuing souls. And then after that with the cancer, I think she was just so joyful and hopeful. So very filled with hope, but totally resigned to God's will. We didn’t have a lot of communication with her at that point, but I remember reading the journals that her sister was keeping when she was going through the cancer treatments, and I just can’t imagine being where she was and having the disposition that she did. It’s just heroic generosity and openness to God's will.
I’m sure she just saw a new way to offer her sufferings for souls. She had always just had this beautiful way of doing that, of findings sufferings to offer up.
We were pregnant with one of our sons and couldn’t make it to the funeral, but they live-streamed it. And on the pamphlet they handed out, on the back, she had written this beautiful letter to Jesus ahead of her death, just accepting God's will for her. It was really something, it was just so beautiful. I remember reading it and re-reading it.
Brandon: I think when you think of saints, you picture them as these flawless, perfect human beings. And when I think of Michelle, it was just this incredibly joyful, pure woman, but a friend. Goofy and just very approachable. I definitely saw her as a model and mentor, but not untouchable or held up on a pedestal.
Has Michelle inspired your own faith? Are there any ways in which you want to imitate her in your own life?
Brittany: I would just say her joy. She was always joyful and very resigned to God’s will.
I remember watching her singing the sing ‘Lord I need you’ at the SEEK conference. It was right after she was diagnosed with cancer. And she was smiling upon getting this diagnosis and singing ‘Lord, I need you,’ that song. And that has stayed with me since I saw it. Just how she probably handled the whole cancer diagnosis. So being able to accept suffering in such a beautiful way.
Brandon: I'd say her deep trust in the Lord in anything that came up. I think I would be very inclined to look at, Well, how am I going to solve this? How am I going to address this? How am I going to fix this? And she was always very quick to turn our attention to Jesus and to trust in him. And I think the depth of her spiritual life and just her trust and belief that God would come through in any situation was really inspiring and something that I would definitely seek to imitate in my own life and relationship with God.