To those who knew Madelyn Nicpon, it came as no surprise that she chose to spend her Saturday evening at a charity fund-raiser in Somerville to support breast cancer research.
But in a terrible misfortune, it would be her last act of generosity. The Tufts University junior was rushed to the hospital after choking on food at the event and died the next day, causing an outpouring of grief on campus and in her small hometown in New York along the New Jersey border.
“This one is devastating,” said the Rev. Robert Stagg, who leads the largest Roman Catholic parish in New Jersey, the Church of the Presentation in Upper Saddle River. “I knew her well. During retreat weekends she would sit down with me for 45 minutes to an hour. A special kid.”
Nicpon was attending the fund-raiser at a private home when she choked on a hot dog, a law enforcement official said. She was taken to Mt. Auburn Hospital, and then to Massachusetts General Hospital where she was pronounced dead on Sunday.
Known as Madie, Nicpon was active in the parish community and her hometown of Suffern, where she graduated in 2019 as class president, a three-sport athlete, and a member of the National Honor Society.
Ashley Rizzo, a high school classmate, recalled working with her as a youth volunteer at Ramapo Valley Ambulance Corps, an EMT service in Rockland County. Nicpon had aspired to be a pediatrician.
“She was the definition of ‘Mountie Pride’ at our high school,” Rizzo wrote in a Facebook message. “She had more spirit for our pep [rallies] and sporting events than probably the whole school combined.”
“We weren’t too close, but knowing her for the small amount of time that I did was truly an honor,” she added.
Stagg said Nicpon, among other parish-related youth activities, participated in missionary work at orphanages with special needs children in Jamaica through the Mustard Seed Foundation. During her second trip, “she would be like a mother hen to some of the neophytes, helping them adjust to a new situation,” Stagg recalled.
At Tufts, some 3,000 people gathered to remember Nicpon at the Gantcher Center on Sunday before attending a candlelight memorial in her honor.
“The number of community members who turned out to lend support to each other, to Madie’s friends, and to her family was a testament to how many lives Madie touched during her time at Tufts,” the university said in a statement.
“She was a true light for the Tufts campus community who was genuinely a friend to all,” Courtney Shute, head coach of the school’s women’s lacrosse team that Nicpon played on, said in a statement. “Madie made time for everyone and cared deeply for people. Her personality was larger than life and brought a constant smile to those around her.”
Nicpon was caring and whimsical. She loved to dance as a way of connecting with people, Shute said.
“She touched people deeply and had a unique and special ability to make people feel truly seen through a combination of her own vulnerability and her desire to make each person she encountered feel valued and loved,” Shute said.
An account to help her family pay expenses had raised more than $165,000 by Thursday evening.
“Madie Nicpon was a beautiful and brilliant daughter, granddaughter, sister, and friend. Her contagious smile and laughter lit up every room,” the webpage read. “Her generosity and kindness has left a lasting impact on those around her.”
On Friday, Nicpon’s wake will be held at her church. Stagg said he doesn’t often allow parishioners to hold wakes there, but readily agreed to do so for Nicpon’s family because the funeral home cannot hold as many mourners as he expects.
Given her connection to the church and the parish community, it’s only fitting, he said.
“She spent a lot of time next to that altar,” Stagg said. “She was one of my kids, too. She was one of our kids. We celebrate with our kids. And we grieve with them.”
A funeral Mass will be celebrated Saturday.
Six weeks ago, Stagg presided over the marriage of Nicpon’s older brother, Brian, with Madie a member of the wedding party. Brian serves in the Marine Corps and her younger brother, Mikey, is in a college ROTC program. Her father is a pediatrician and her mother is a nurse.
In the years he knew the Nicpon family, Stagg learned that Madie was nicked during oral surgery and needed donated tissue to help repair the damage. From then on, she was a steadfast and public supporter of organ donation.
After her death, her organs were donated, her family said.
“There are a lot of people who are going to be healthy” as a result, Stagg said. “She gives life physically and spiritually. That’s who she is.”