“Michelle would not have wanted all the attention,” Bishop David Kagan of the Diocese of Bismarck, North Dakota, said of Servant of God Michelle Christine Duppong at the end of the movie about her life, Radiating Joy: The Michelle Duppong Story. “But what she always wanted to do is really happening: holding up her life to draw people to Christ.”
The world premiere showing on Jan. 25 would have been Duppong’s 40th birthday. Duppong died at the age of 31, after a yearlong battle with cancer. Her canonization cause is underway.
The film was shown simultaneously at North Dakota State University’s St. Paul Newman Center in Fargo and at University of Mary in Bismarck. Duppong graduated in horticulture at NDSU and was very involved at the Newman Center, just like her five siblings. The University of Mary is where Duppong was a Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) missionary team leader, the inaugural year for FOCUS on campus, 2010-2011, and the last of her six years at four colleges as a FOCUS missionary. UMary also hosted a free dinner at the Crow’s Nest cafeteria prior to the movie and had three rooms set up to accommodate the more than 1,000 people who came, including Duppong’s parents, Ken and Mary Ann, and sister Renae.
The national Denver office of FOCUS, a Catholic outreach program for college students, hired Anderson Art Productions to document the young woman’s life through interviews with loved ones, which came to include her primary cancer doctor, fellow FOCUS missionaries; the priest/pilot from the St. Paul Newman Center who flew her from Chicago back home for hospice; Msgr. James Shea, the president of UMary; and Bishop Kagan. Duppong herself also appears in a video she had made to promote the first “Thirst” conference in Bismarck, a project she began while serving as the director of adult faith formation beginning in 2012.
Looking directly into the camera, Duppong appealed to all to draw closer to Jesus by attending the free conference. “As he was dying on the cross, he said, ‘I thirst,’ and that thirst is he thirsts for each of our souls; he wants us to be with him forever in heaven.”
In the film, memories and images gleaned from 30 hours of interviews re-create the Servant of God’s life from her vivacious girlhood on the windswept prairie of their Haymarsh farm (40 miles from Bismarck) to the cancer diagnosis on Dec. 29, 2014, to passing away at age 31 on Dec. 25, 2015. An earlier 50-minute movie had been made simply as a training video for FOCUS volunteers, but this new 75-minute movie is 90% new material.
Prior to the movie’s showing, Msgr. Shea spoke with the Register. He explained that there had been a sneak peak of the movie in St. Louis at the FOCUS “SEEK 24” conference, Jan. 1-5, to 2,700 attendees, where he was a speaker.
“Thousands were deeply moved and inspired, even weeping,” he said. “Michelle was a real live person, a prairie farm girl — in many ways ordinary, but so full of faith. We are constantly trying to inspire our students to embrace a life of deep faith and joy, and Michelle brings that home for them.”
Her example helps us to begin to embrace difficulties in our own lives, according to Msgr. Shea. “Our stories are very different from hers, but all of us in our own way are called to embrace our crosses and share the faith. This film is a how-to manual to inspire sanctity. Michelle made holiness real.”
The movie opens with Dr. Leo Taiberg, who was the medical director of the City of Hope Cancer Care Center in Chicago where Michelle was last cared for, reading a letter dated Feb. 16, 2016, written by her sister Renae: “Dear Dr. Leo, my family and I want to thank you for showing us, and especially Michelle, so much compassion.” The letter expresses that, despite a year of so much pain fighting the cancer, Duppong would have changed absolutely nothing. “I am not at that spiritual level,” Taiberg admits in the film. “I need to mature more to get to that level. … She trusted in God and let God do that work in her. Can I let God do that work in me? Yeah, Michelle showed me how.”
Testimony of conversions that have led to holy marriages and vocations point to the love and attention Duppong gave to everyone she encountered. Film scenes are shown from childhood up until her last moments at home on Christmas Day. Especially touching is a jaundiced Michelle, with tubes coming from her, held by Ken in her hospital room, for one last father-daughter dance.
There are scenes from the Mass on All Saints’ Day 2022 at Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Bismarck, where Bishop Kagan officially opened her cause for canonization. Once the lengthy diocesan investigation is complete, it will be forwarded to the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints at the Vatican. If approved, it will proceed from there for possible beatification and canonization.
Bishop Kagan explained in the movie that even after Duppong died, she remained alive in the hearts of many, as her reputation continued to spread. Cards and letters began arriving at the Bismarck Diocese with stories of how the young woman’s holy life had impacted them and reports of answered prayers. Bishop Kagan told of one woman who shared that she had prayed for Duppong’s intercession for either help accepting her hard-to-treat cancer or for healing. An ultrasound to help determine further treatment baffled the doctor. The results showed no cancer present. A second ultrasound confirmed it. The doctor asked her to come back in several weeks for another ultrasound. He was again confounded — there was no trace of cancer.
After watching the movie in Fargo, Aaron Filzen, a FOCUS team director at North Dakota State University where Michelle’s foray into FOCUS began through their influence, expressed that he was touched to learn that Duppong offered her cancer for conversions at a FOCUS conference he had attended. “I was one of those students that had a conversion at the SEEK conference in 2015 that she offered her suffering and cancer for,” Filzen said. “Now, I am at the campus serving as a fifth-year missionary. Michelle Duppong is a modern heroic witness of the truth that suffering can bring about good when offered with joy.”
Ken and Mary Ann Duppong also shared their thoughts with the Register following the movie premiere. “The movie brought tears to my eyes,” Ken said. “We didn’t realize a lot of things she was doing at the time. Seeing that is getting to know her even more through others. Her goal was to bring people to Jesus and introduce them to him and he would do the rest. It’s amazing to see that happening.”
“We’re so grateful at all the people who have come out tonight,” Mary Ann expressed, “and what the University of Mary and people involved in the cause are doing for her to get the message out. It is a message of hope, and this is what Michelle wanted. Her whole thought was, ‘Don’t worry about what lies ahead. Realize there’s hope, and in the end, love wins; God wins; it’s his plan.”
The movie is being shown in a few select theaters in Denver, St. Louis and Washington, and possibly other larger cities thereafter.
FOCUS is looking at opportunities for a full theatrical release as well as streaming options. They will announce plans once they are determined.