NEW YORK — Sharon Lavigne, a renowned environmental activist in Louisiana, will receive the 2022 Laetare Medal from the University of Notre Dame, one of the oldest and most prestigious honors given to American Catholics.
Lavigne is the founder and director of Rise St. James, a faith-based grassroots organization fighting for environmental justice in St. James Parish, Louisiana. She has lived in St. James Parish her entire life and has watched firsthand as a region once rich with farmland has transformed into one rife with industrial pollution.
In 2021, Lavigne received the Goldman Environmental Prize, which annually honors grassroots environmental activists, and has been named to the Forbes “50 over 50” impact list. She spoke at the 2019 Congressional Convening on Environmental Justice in Washington D.C., and last year welcomed Environmental Protection Agency administrator Michael Regan to St. James Parish.
“Through her tireless activism, Sharon Lavigne has heeded God’s call to advocate for the health of her community and the planet — and to help put an end to environmental degradation which so often disproportionately victimizes communities of color,” said Father John Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame. “In awarding her the Laetare Medal, Notre Dame recognizes her leadership and her courage as a champion of the environment, a voice for the marginalized, and a steadfast servant of our creator.”
St. James Parish is nestled between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, on an 85-mile stretch of land along the Mississippi River that has more than 150 petrochemical plants and refineries, 32 of which are concentrated in districts where the majority of residents are both black and lower-income. The stretch is nicknamed “Cancer Alley” because of the higher cancer rates that exist in the region compared to the rest of the United States.
Lavigne, a retired special education teacher and a lifelong Catholic, created Rise St. James in 2018 when a plastics corporation planned to build a plant two miles from her home.
“Why would they put the plant over here? Because they knew that people weren’t going to speak up,” Lavigne said. “And they were right. The people weren’t going to speak up. That’s when God touched me and told me to fight — and that’s what I did.”
Soon after the organization’s inception, Lavigne and other members of Rise St. James successfully campaigned against the construction of a plant proposed by Wanhua Chemical. Wanhua withdrew its land-use application for the plant in September 2019. The group is now working to stop the construction of a $9.4 billion chemical plant proposed by Formosa Plastics.
Lavigne credits her faith for getting her to this point.
“I know He has me here for a reason, so I want to do His will,” Lavigne said. “I want to do the work that He wants me to do. He put a fight in me that I can’t even explain. I’ve gotten closer to Him. And I’m so glad I’m closer to Him because now we can fight anything.”
The Laetare Medal is announced each year on the fourth Sunday of Lent, known as Laetare Sunday, and dates back to 1883. Notre Dame established the award as an American counterpart of the Golden Rose, a papal honor that goes back to the 11th century.
Previous recipients of the award include President Joe Biden, President John F. Kennedy, Dorothy Day, former Speaker of the House John Boehner, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Sister Norma Pimentel, and Hollywood actor Martin Sheen. Last year’s recipient was Wall Street executive and gospel singer Carla Harris.
The Laetare Medal bears the Latin inscription Magna est veritas et praevalebit (“Truth it is mighty, and it shall prevail”). Every year the award goes to a Catholic “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences and illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity.”
Lavigne will receive the 2022 Laetare Medal at the University’s commencement ceremony in May.