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U.S. Bishops affirm sainthood causes for three American women of different eras

Michelle Duppong, Mother Margaret Mary Healy-Murphy and Cora Louise Evans

BALTIMORE (OSV News) – In 1888, a widow, inspired by the U.S. bishops’ call to help African Americans struggling in the early days of Reconstruction following the Civil War, founded a hospital and school for them; when she couldn’t find teachers, she then founded a religious order to fill the need. In 1938, a wife and mother dedicated her life to serving Christ after experiencing spiritual ecstasy, a pivotal point in her journey as a mystic and visionary. And, in 2015, a North Dakota farm girl and former FOCUS missionary died after a yearlong struggle with cancer, and hundreds of people wrote her parents to share how their daughter had been the face of Christ to them.

As different as these Catholic women’s lives and times are, they converged Nov. 16, when the U.S. bishops affirmed their causes for sainthood while meeting in Baltimore for their Fall General Assembly.

“It’s an overwhelming wonder,” said Mary Ann Duppong, 72, of the sainthood cause for her daughter, Michelle Duppong, who died in 2015 at age 31, and whose cause was presented by Bishop David D. Kagan of Bismarck. “As a parent, we never imagined the impact she made across the country because she was so quiet about it.”

Also recognized by the U.S. bishops were Mother Margaret Mary Healy-Murphy, foundress of the San Antonio-based Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate, whose cause was presented by Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller of San Antonio, and Cora Louise Evans, a convert, visionary and mystic who had lived in southern California; her cause was presented by Bishop Daniel E. Garcia of Monterey.

Because they are subjects of official canonization processes, the women are each titled “Servant of God.”

Michelle Duppong: A Cheerful Witness of Faith

Michelle Duppong

Michelle Duppong was born in 1984 near Denver, Colorado, shortly before her family returned to south-central North Dakota, where her parents, Ken and Mary Ann, had grown up. In an interview with OSV News, Mary Ann recalled her daughter as a cheerful, selfless child, who was eager to work hard alongside her parents and five siblings on the family’s farm. Michelle loved family gatherings, and invested in relationships with family and friends. After high school, she attended North Dakota State University in Fargo to study horticulture.

At NDSU, Michelle Duppong connected with the university’s Newman Center and the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, or FOCUS, a relationship-based campus evangelization ministry. After graduation in 2006, she served as a FOCUS missionary for six years, mentoring hundreds of students at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, South Dakota State University and University of South Dakota, before spending her final FOCUS year at University of Mary in Bismarck, a little more than an hour away from her childhood home. In 2012, Duppong began working as the director of adult faith formation for the Diocese of Bismarck, and she was instrumental in starting the annual Thirst Eucharistic Conference, which brings national Catholic speakers to the diocese.

In December 2014, Duppong sought medical treatment for severe abdominal pain, which was soon discovered to be pervasive cancer. With the hope she would receive a miraculous healing, she spent the following months seeking medical treatment. Despite horrible pain, Mary Ann said her daughter didn’t complain; instead, Duppong downplayed her suffering, juxtaposing it to Christ’s suffering in the crucifixion.

Duppong’s cheerfulness and orientation towards others attracted people to her, just as it had before her illness, her mother said.

“She was reaching out to them. She was always (ministering) — whether it was the doctor, the taxi driver, the cleaning lady that would come into her room, the respiratory therapist,” Mary Anne said. “They would come in on their weekends; they would bring their children to meet her. They became her friend, and she became theirs.”

Michelle Duppong died at home shortly before midnight on Christmas in 2015, surrounded by family members.

In the years since, people have attributed miraculous healings and personal consolations to Duppong’s intercession, or have claimed to hear her voice giving them courage, her mother told OSV News.

In 2021, Bishop Kagan commissioned Father Thomas Grafsgaard, a priest of the Diocese of Bismarck, to begin collecting documents related to the young woman’s life. In June 2022, during a Mass for FOCUS missionaries in training, Bishop Kagan announced he planned to open an investigation into Duppong’s life. He officially opened her cause Nov. 1, 2022 during an All Saints’ Day Mass.

The road to a person’s canonization has many steps, beginning with a diocesan investigation. Not all Servants of God are ultimately canonized, but that is not a statement on the person’s holiness, emphasized Father Grafsgaard, the postulator of Duppong’s cause. He does not know how long the investigation will last or its eventual outcome, but said that should not discourage those who knew Duppong.

“She was always one who said, ‘Thy will be done,’” Father Grafsgaard, 36, told OSV News. “Before her illness and during her illness, people could see in Michelle a heroic example of sanctity. This wasn’t just a very notable woman. This was a woman who lived out Christian virtue, most especially heroic suffering.”

As the postulator, Father Grafsgaard’s role is to conduct a thorough investigation and seek the truth, careful not to hide anything that would contradict “the reputation … enjoyed by the Servant of God,” according to “Sanctorum mater,” a 2007 instruction from what is now the Holy See’s Dicastery for the Causes of Saints. While he must remain impartial to the cause, the priest has been inspired by Duppong’s witness.

“Michelle was quick to point out that sanctity is for everybody … not a select few,” Father Grafsgaard said. “She lived that. That’s what animated her joy. (It’s not that) some people are cut out to be saints and others weren’t — no, she truly believed that everybody was created to be a saint, and that makes for the joyful life.”

Cora Evans: Mystic and Evangelist in an Ordinary Life

Cora Evans

Cora Evans

Like Michelle, Cora Evans has been celebrated for her simplicity and seemingly ordinary life. She was born in Utah in 1904 and was raised in the Mormon faith, but she grew disillusioned with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints at the time of her marriage to Mack Evans in 1924. She spent a decade searching for a religion she could accept as true, but was prejudiced against the Catholic faith. During that time, she and her husband had three children, including a son who died at 10 months old.

In December 1934, Evans listened to a Catholic radio program presented by then-Msgr. Duane Hunt (who would later be consecrated bishop of Salt Lake City in 1937) and experienced a change of heart. She visited the local Catholic parish, and in March 1935, she joined the Catholic faith at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Ogden, Utah.

According to biographical information shared by her cause’s promoter, Michael McDevitt, over the following three years, Evans encouraged more than a thousand Mormons to visit her parish, and that resulted in hundreds of conversions to Catholicism.

In 1938, she experienced a mystical vision during which she vowed to serve God for the rest of her life.

In 1941, she moved with her family to southern California, and, as her mystical experiences grew more frequent, she requested spiritual guidance from the local Jesuit community. In 1945, Jesuit Father Frank Parrish was appointed her spiritual director.

The following year, Evans had a vision in which she said Jesus revealed he was entrusting her to spread a devotion to the Mystical Humanity of Christ. As she continued to have spiritual ecstasies and visions of Jesus and Mary and other saints, Father Parrish asked her to write about her experiences. In 1947, she began to display the stigmata, or the physical wounds of Christ, which could cause her pain for the rest of her life.

In 1956, she moved to northern California, where she was visited by Bishop Hunt, whose radio presentation had inspired her conversion 22 years prior. She died March 30, 1957, the anniversary of her baptism. She was 52.

Father Parrish continued to be the custodian of Evans’ writings, and in 1992, he entrusted them to McDevitt, his nephew. Together, they organized retreats to spread devotion to the Mystical Humanity of Christ. After Father Parrish’s death in 2003 at age 92, McDevitt continued to collect information related to Evans’ life and the impact of her visions, and in 2010, he petitioned the bishop of Monterey, then Bishop Richard J. Garcia, to open Evans’ cause for canonization. The bishop formally opened the cause in 2012.

The cause’s diocesan phase has collected more than 5,000 pages of documentation, and the cause’s postulator, Father Joseph Grimaldi, expects to submit the completed reports on Evans’ life to the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Causes of Saints in January.

“I feel that every step of the way, we have been led by our Lord,” McDevitt, 82, told OSV News. He said Evans is relatable as a wife and mother, and her cause is based on her holiness, not her reported mysticism.

“I don’t know that any of us can relate to fully understanding mysticism or the stigmata, but those aren’t the things that would determine whether or not she was ever declared a saint,” he said. “It always comes back to … what were her heroic virtues,” such as charity, humility and obedience.

Mother Margaret Mary Healy Murphy: Wife, Widow, Religious Serving the Marginalized

Mother Margaret Mary Healy Murphy

Mother Margaret Mary Healy Murphy

Similar virtues marked the life of Mother Margaret Mary Healy Murphy. Born in Ireland in 1833, Margaret Mary Healy immigrated with her father to America at age 12. She lived in Virginia, Louisiana and Mexico before her marriage at age 16 to newspaper editor John Bernard Murphy.

During her marriage, Murphy gained a reputation for charity and serving the sick. An account of her life, shared by the religious community she later founded, recounts her “riding 35 miles on horseback to secure medicine for yellow fever victims.”

After moving to Corpus Christi, Texas, Murphy opened a hospital for the poor in 1875 and started a St. Vincent de Paul Society chapter. Meanwhile, Murphy and her husband adopted two girls who lost their mothers to illness; both later entered religious life.

In 1880, John Bernard became Corpus Christi’s mayor, but he died four years later. Despite her grief as a widow, Murphy continued her charitable outreach. She established “Mrs. Murphy’s Hospital for the Poor” for tuberculosis patients in the city in 1885 before moving to San Antonio.

In 1887, Murphy was attending Mass on Pentecost Sunday when the priest preached about the U.S. bishops’ call, during the Third Plenary Council in Baltimore, for ministry to African Americans. She felt compelled to respond, which was underscored by a moving encounter with a Black child while on her way home.

In the face of racist opposition to her plans, Murphy funded the construction and founding of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church and School, San Antonio’s first free and private school for African Americans, which opened in 1888.

When she struggled to find teachers, Murphy gained her bishop’s blessing to found a religious congregation, first known as the Sisters of the Holy Ghost. The community is now known as the Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate. She recruited the community’s first sisters from her native Ireland.

“Mother Margaret,” as her congregation’s sisters call her, died in 1907. The school she founded in San Antonio is now named in her honor and serves as an alternative high school.

“Her overall outreach was to the poor — to bring the compassion of Christ to the poor, whatever the need was in her lifetime,” Sister Veronica Cahill, a professed Sister of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate for more than 50 years, told OSV News. “People can look at her life and see what she did, and then be moved to continue to respond to the poor and marginalized and reach out — not just give a little donation here and a little donation there — but truly take on the plight of the poor.”

Two sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate presented a petition for their foundress’ cause for canonization to Archbishop Garcia-Siller in June 2021.

After information for a cause is collected on the diocesan phase, it’s compiled into a document called a “positio” and sent to Rome. Then, in what is known as the Roman phase, that positio is reviewed, and sent to the pope for a decree of heroic virtues. If the pope grants that decree, the person is given the title “venerable.”

For a cause to proceed to beatification, a confirmed miracle must be attributed to the servant of God’s intercession. A second miracle must be confirmed before a person is canonized.

Maria Wiering is Senior Writer for OSV News.

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