NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A retired special education teacher turned environmental justice advocate will receive what the University of Notre Dame describes as the oldest and most prestigious honor for American Catholics.
The university will present its Laetare Medal to Rise St. James founder Sharon Lavigne on May 15, during commencement ceremonies in South Bend, Indiana.
“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,” Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins said in a news release. “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.”
Lavigne created Rise St. James in 2018, a year that plastics companies in China and Taiwan announced plans to build in St. James Parish, between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Wanhua Plastics planned a $1.25 billion complex in Convent and Formosa Plastics got permits for a $9.4 billion complex.
Wanhua canceled its application in 2019, saying it had scaled back its plans and was looking at another site.
Last year, a Pentagon official ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to make a full environmental study of Formosa Plastics Group member FG LA LLC’s plans for 10 chemical plants and four other major facilities. And Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan made the parish one of the stops in his “Journey to Justice” tour.
In January, EPA announced a pilot project combining high-tech air pollution monitoring with additional inspectors in three parishes, including St. James and neighboring St. John the Baptist Parish.
The Laetare Medal has been awarded annually since 1883 to a Catholic “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity.”
Other Louisiana recipients have included It was given in 2019 to retired Xavier University of Louisiana president Norman L. Francis in 2019, singer Aaron Neville in 2015 and Sister Helen Prejean in 1996.
Lavigne said many people in her area thought it wouldn’t do any good to fight the chemical giants.
“Why would they put the plant over here? Because they knew that people weren’t going to speak up,” Lavigne told Notre Dame. “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.”
Her parish holds 32 of the 150-plus petrochemical plants and refineries along an 85 mile (140 kilometer) stretch of the Mississippi River. Many are in areas where the majority of residents are both Black and lower income.
“The Civil Rights Act and the Louisiana Constitution are supposed to protect Black communities from this type of environmental racism,” Lavigne said. “Our agencies are rubber stamping every permit that comes across their desks.”
A lifelong member of St. James Catholic Church, Lavigne said that her faith has buoyed her throughout her journey — and that her advocacy work has brought her closer to God.
“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.”