In the spring of 2012, I came across an article that had become a viral sensation: a guileless new restaurant review from an eighty-five-year-old woman in Grand Forks, North Dakota. It caught my eye because I had just returned to Michigan after interviewing for a job twenty minutes from Grand Forks. That, and it was a rave review for Olive Garden. I thought, “Where am I going?!” I couldn’t conceive of a place that had never heard of Olive Garden. I immediately googled “Trader Joes” (285 miles away) and “Panera” (224 miles away). Where was I going?
When I made the move a few months later, I quickly learned that it was a town with no clothing stores, no coffee shop, and no Olive Garden. It was also a place with arctic temperatures for months at a time (twenty-below is normal, forty-below actually happens). The material trappings—or lack thereof—of my new home often surprised me. There were no cool restaurants, no arts scene, no classical music concerts. The area was a glacial plain, and I had never seen land so flat in my entire life. When people from Michigan asked me how it was, I’d answer, “Flat. And cold. And there are a lot of sugar beets.”
On the cusp of my thirtieth year of life, I had left a job I loved, friends I loved, a school I loved—the whole wonderful life I’d built up to that point—and moved to a seemingly barren northern Minnesota. My thesis director said, “It isn’t the end of the earth, but you can see it from there.” I did this because of the conviction, after years of prayer, that the Lord was asking me to step out in faith and radically trust Him. When I got in the car and drove almost one-thousand miles, I didn’t even know where I’d live, my new job title, or the exact nature of the job I’d be doing. For those who don’t know me, I was born a type-A planner in the extreme, so this level of trust was not natural.
While discovering and embracing my new reality, I started my work as a diocesan coordinator of catechesis and youth ministry, which very often involved a lot of driving between small towns in the “land-rich” diocese. Twice a year, I drove hours to attend regional diocesan directors’ meetings with my counterparts from all the dioceses of Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota. At one of the first meetings I attended, I learned that everyone was twice my age, except one other young woman: Michelle. She started her position at the Diocese of Bismarck after spending six years as a FOCUS missionary. She had a radiant smile and the warmest disposition. She spoke freely and joyfully of her love of Jesus. She had infectious missionary zeal. We joined forces in proffering Eucharistic adoration, the sacraments, more time in prayer, and love of the Scriptures as necessary ways of helping people meet Jesus. We bonded immediately and decided we should carpool to future meetings. I treasured my growing friendship with Michelle and the hours spent in the car together and during the downtimes of these days-long meetings. My new home was in the third-smallest diocese in the country and there simply weren’t a lot of people, so I was immeasurably grateful to encounter Michelle—someone who matched my zeal for the Lord and spoke of Him like I did, as an intimate friend who I deeply love.
However, late in 2014, Michelle was diagnosed with stage four cancer at the age of thirty. A year later, on Christmas Day, she passed away. Michelle was beloved by countless people, and losing her was a devastating sorrow. I keenly felt the loss of this friend who had uniquely supported me in radically following Jesus.
But we know, as the Roman Missal says, “For your faithful, Lord, life is changed not ended.” And on November 1, 2022, I started getting rapid-fire texts from friends in Minnesota and North Dakota, as a special Mass began. I was back in Michigan, watching via livestream, as Bishop David Kagan said these words:
“After having consulted with the Holy See, my brother bishops and the faithful of this diocese; and having verified the existence of a true and widespread reputation of sanctity, enjoyed by her during her life and growing ever stronger after her death, as well as ample evidence of the granting of graces and favors by God through her intercession, I, David D. Kagan, Bishop of Bismarck, do hereby make public the petition of Father Thomas J. Grafsgaard, the postulator of this cause, and thus declare I am initiating the Cause of Beatification and Canonization of the Servant of God Michelle Christine Duppong.”
I wept in amazement, in gratitude. “How is this possible? My friend could be a future Saint?!”
A month later, I was in the Renewal Ministries’ office, preparing a slide show for Ralph Martin’s birthday. A picture flashed across the screen—St. John Paul II hugging Ralph—and Ralph exclaimed, “Hey! That’s me with a Saint!” Another picture—Ralph and St. Teresa of Calcutta—and again Ralph said, “There I am with another Saint!” I found myself flooded with thoughts about our relationships and encounters in this life and how they intersect with our pursuit of heaven.
As Catholics, we treasure our friendships with our heavenly brothers and sisters. We rely on them and their prayers. We find hope in their witness that we too can finish the race and make it to our eternal home. But do we ponder our own eternal destiny or that of the people around us? Do we daily have our hearts fixed on heaven? Do we live in such a way that when we die, we too might be saints? Do we recognize that every person we encounter will one day be in either heaven or hell? The Church teaches that all those in heaven are saints. Full stop. Not everyone in heaven is formally canonized, but everyone in heaven is a saint!
When we look at the historical records of the saints, we see that they often encountered one another: St. Francis and St. Dominic, St. Catherine of Siena and Bl. Raymond of Capua, St. Augustine and St. Ambrose, St. John Paull II and St. Teresa of Calcutta, St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal. Pondering both my friendship with Michelle, who is on the path toward canonized sainthood, and Ralph’s time with two people already recognized as saints left me with the profound realization that, hopefully, we live each day in the company of people who will one day be saints in heaven. It also left me with the weighty reminder that we each have a part to play in the refining and purifying journey that helps others get to heaven. May we be more aware of this awesome reality and its accompanying demands.
We need to recognize that while becoming saints requires a supernatural grace, it’s also normal and possible because it’s what we’re made for. St. Paul tells us, “This is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thes 4:3). And St. Peter tells us, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pt 1:3-4; emphasis mine). The Saints were once what we are now. We sometimes perceive of them as distant and other than us, making a chasm between us and them that doesn’t need to be there. If we are really living for heaven, we probably know saints-in-progress now. Michelle didn’t seem like an unattainably holy person. She was like other people I know who are wholeheartedly pursuing the Lord. She got up every day and loved Jesus and others. She suffered and died well. She received that suffering as being from the Lord, and she touched innumerable lives in doing so. Her example can remind us that none of us knows what stepping stones we’re laying in others’ paths to heaven through both our littlest and biggest offerings. Our day-to-day lives do not happen in isolation; they impact other people. And each of us is able to impact people for heaven.
When I first considered moving to Minnesota, I asked, “Where am I going?” Yes, I was headed to simpler life, stripped of familiar material comforts, a place that was flat, cold, and full of sugar beets. But I was also going to a place of saints-in-the-making. I was going to a place to cleave to Jesus more radically, to foster life-changing relationships, and to be refined, purified, and simplified so as to grow in holiness. I was going to a place where I would play a daily role in helping others on their journey to saintliness—and where I would meet people, like Michelle, who would help me in mine. I hope every day that the answer to the question, “Where I am going?” will always first and foremost be heaven. Let’s pursue being saints together. My friends, I can’t wait to be with you and Michelle in heaven.
This article originally appeared in Renewal Ministries’ August 2023 newsletter.