One of seven children, Michael Saltarelli was born in Jersey City, New Jersey to Michael and Caroline (née Marzitello) Saltarelli. He attended James J. Ferris High School and later Seton Hall University, from where he obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1956. He then studied at Immaculate Conception Seminary in Darlington, and was ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop Thomas Boland on May 28, 1960.
Saltarelli served as an associate pastor at Holy Family Church in Nutley from 1960 to 1977, and earned a Master's degree in religious studies from Manhattan College in 1975. He served as pastor of Our Lady of Assumption Church in Bayonne from 1977 to 1982, whence he became Executive Director for Pastoral Services in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark. He was raised to the rank of Honorary Prelate of His Holiness in 1984.
Saltarelli was later made pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Church in Cedar Grove in June 1985, and Vicar for Priests in November 1987. He also served as Dean of North Essex, of Bayonne, and of West Essex. He served two terms as a member of and one term as president of the Priests' Personnel Board, and was a member of the Archdiocesan School Board.
Former Boston College linebacker Brian Toal is his grandnephew.
On June 2, 1990, Saltarelli was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Newark and Titular Bishop of Mesarfelta by Pope John Paul II. He received his episcopal consecration on the following July 30 from Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, with Archbishop Peter Gerety and Bishop John Smith serving as co-consecrators. He selected as his episcopal motto: "Obedience to Jesus Christ."
As an auxiliary to Archbishop McCarrick, he served as rector of Sacred Heart Cathedral and continued to serve as Vicar for Priests. He was also the national episcopal moderator of the Holy Name Society and New Jersey State Chaplain of the Knights of Columbus.
Saltarelli was later named the eighth Bishop of Wilmington, Delaware, on November 21, 1995. He succeeded Robert E. Mulvee, and was formally installed on January 23, 1996.
During his tenure, he oversaw an increase of over 60,000 Catholics in the diocese, ordained 23 priests and 47 permanent deacons, and constructed or renovated numerous churches, schools, and other facilities. He also expanded ministries to Hispanics, and established a group of Delawarean Catholics dedicated to preventing legislation that would legalize cloning and the use of human embryos for medical research. He released the names of 20 diocesan priests accused of sexual abuse, and once said, "I condemn what's been done to victims with all my heart."
In 2006, he refused to allow a student center at Archmere Academy to be named after then-Senator Joe Biden, an Archmere alumnus and pro-choice politician. Upon reaching the mandatory retirement age of 75, Saltarelli submitted his resignation to Pope Benedict XVI in January 2007 (however, his year of birth was still publicly listed as 1933, with 1932 not being publicized until after his death). His resignation was accepted on July 7, 2008, and he served as Apostolic Administrator of Wilmington until the installation of his successor, William F. Malooly, the following September 8.
He underwent an emergency quadruple-bypass surgery on April 2, 2009.
Saltarelli suffered from cancer that started as bone cancer and had spread. He died on October 8, 2009 in Wilmington, Delaware.