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In Memoriam: Michael F. Szupper

Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson

Monsignor Szupper led the UD Catholic campus ministry for 42 years

The Rev. Monsignor Michael F. Szupper, priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wilmington since 1957, Catholic chaplain at the University of Delaware from 1964 to 2006 and founding pastor of the St. Thomas More Oratory, passed away peacefully on Dec. 18, 2017. He was 86 years old.

The Rev. Monsignor Michael F. Szupper
The Rev. Monsignor Michael F. Szupper served as Catholic chaplain at UD from 1964-2006 and was founding pastor of the St. Thomas More Oratory.

Monsignor Szupper was a presence on the campus from the time he began his ministry at UD in 1964. When he came to UD, there was no St. Thomas More Oratory, so he said mass in a variety of locations from movie theatres to a synagogue.

In 1973, Monsignor Szupper was taken to court for celebrating Mass on campus. This case was ultimately decided by the United States Supreme Court and became precedent-setting allowing Mass to be celebrated for students on state campuses across the country.

In a 2003 University of Delaware Messenger article, Monsignor Szupper said the court case was a difficult time for him as he had many friends in the UD administration. "It was a time of questioning and defining the role of religion and its place in the academic community,” he said. “It was difficult work but rewarding, learning when to share and how to serve the student pursuing academic goals as well as fulfilling personal visions and always respecting those who differed."

The St. Thomas More Oratory on Lovett Avenue was built in 1974 as part of a diocesan building campaign, giving Catholics in the campus community a central place to worship.

In his years at UD, Monsignor Szupper rarely missed a football game, arriving early for every home game and cheering on the team and the Marching Band. Students who wanted him to marry them or alumni who wanted their children christened in the fall knew those events would have to be scheduled around the Blue Hens' football schedule. In the 2003 interview, Monsignor Szupper said that, although his shirts were black, his favorite colors were Delaware blue and gold.

In 2003, Monsignor Szupper was presented the University’s Medal of Distinction, the highest non-academic award bestowed by the University’s Board of Trustees. It recognizes individuals who have made humanitarian, cultural, intellectual or scientific contributions to society; who have achieved noteworthy professional success; or who have given significant service to the University, community, state or region.

In presenting the award to Monsignor Szupper, Howard Cosgrove, then chairman of the Board of Trustees, described him as a “man of spirituality, wisdom and integrity.” The citation concluded: "Father Szupper -- mentor, inspirer and friend -- we salute you for contributions to the education, enrichment and spiritual lives of countless students at the University of Delaware, and in the process, for sharing your intellect, energy and selflessness."

Looking back on his long career serving students at UD in the 2003 interview, Father Szupper reflected: "When the students file in at the start of the fall for the first 6:30 Sunday evening Mass, it's very quiet for the first two weeks. Then, about two weeks later, as Kim [Zitzner] and I get ready, we begin to hear the students talking quietly to each other. By the next week, they are chatting away like family, and we feel like we are interrupting them to hold the service. All that talking is the most wonderful sound in the world: It's the sound of home."

In 2005, when it was announced that Father Szupper was to become Monsignor Szupper, a UDaily article quoted then-President David Roselle, who called him an “icon.” “His more than 40 years of service to the University is unprecedented in length, devotion and quality,” Roselle said. “During all of those years, members of the University’s student body, staff, faculty and other religious leaders have benefited from his wise counsel, leadership and model behavior.”

In the same article, Monsignor Szupper said that looking back over his long association with UD, two major events stood out. One was receiving the Medal of Distinction in 2003, and the other was during mass on his 70th birthday when the back door of the Oratory opened and YoUDee walked up to the altar with a bunch of birthday balloons.

Monsignor Szupper was born on Oct. 13, 1931, in Northampton, Pennsylvania, the son of the late Anthony Szupper and the late Louise (Szabara) Szupper. He attended Our Lady of Hungary School in Northampton. He began his studies for the priesthood at the Pontifical Josephinum High School and Pontifical College Josephinum, Worthington, Ohio. After ordination, he received a doctorate in philosophy of education from Catholic University of America in 1968.

He was ordained for the Diocese of Wilmington on May 25, 1957, at the Josephinum by Archbishop Amleto Giovanni Cicognani, Apostolic Delegate to the United States. He served as associate pastor at St. Francis de Sales, Salisbury, Maryland, and Immaculate Conception, Elkton, Maryland. He was finishing his doctoral studies when he received a new assignment in 1964 to become the Catholic chaplain for the University of Delaware, where he served until he retired in July 2006.

Monsignor also served as dean of the Iron Hill Deanery, diocesan director of Campus Ministry, Mmember of the Diocesan Ecumenical Commission, board member of the Catholic Press of Wilmington Inc., member of the Diocesan Board of Catholic Education, member of the Pastoral Planning Committe, and an elected representative to the Personnel Committee.

On Nov. 27, 2005, Pope Benedict XVI honored him as a “Chaplain to His Holiness” with the title of monsignor in recognition of his outstanding service.

Monsignor Szupper is survived by his brother, Anthony, sister, Theresa (Frank) Trinkle, brother, William (Nona) Szupper, and many nieces, nephews, cousins and his Delaware family.

Viewings will be held from 6-8 p.m., Friday, Dec. 29, at the St. Thomas More Oratory, 45 Lovett Ave., Newark, and from 10-11 a.m., Saturday, Dec. 30, at St. Margaret of Scotland, 2431 Frazer Rd., Newark.

The Most Reverend W. Francis Malooly, bishop of Wilmington, will celebrate the Mass of Christian Burial for Monsignor Szupper at 11:30 a.m., Saturday, Dec. 30, at St. Margaret of Scotland.  Interment will be at Our Lady of Hungary Cemetery in Northampton, Pennsylvania.

In lieu of flowers, memorial donations can be made in Monsignor Szupper’s name to: St. Thomas More Oratory, 45 Lovett Ave., Newark, DE 19711, or Queenship of Mary Church, 1324 Newport Avenue, Northampton, PA 18067.

Condolences may be left online.

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