Eco-activist who uses faith to fight Louisiana’s ‘cancer alley’ wins ND award


NEW YORK — Sharon Lavigne, a prominent 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 community organization fighting for environmental justice in St. James Parish, Louisiana. She has lived her entire life in the parish of St. James and has witnessed the transformation of an area once rich in agricultural land into one plagued by industrial pollution.

In 2021, Lavigne received the Goldman Environmental Prize, which annually recognizes grassroots environmental activists, and was named to the Forbes “50 of 50” impact list. She spoke at the 2019 Congressional Meeting on Environmental Justice in Washington DC and last year hosted Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan at St. James Parish.

“Through her tireless activism, Sharon Lavigne has answered God’s call to defend the health of her community and the planet – and to help end the environmental degradation that so often disproportionately victimizes people. communities of color,” said Fr. John Jenkins, the president. of Notre Dame. “By awarding her the Laetare Medal, Notre-Dame recognizes her leadership and courage as a champion of the environment, voice of the marginalized and unwavering servant of our creator.”

St. James Parish is nestled between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, on an 85-mile strip of land along the Mississippi River that has more than 150 petrochemical plants and refineries, 32 of which are concentrated in neighborhoods where the majority of residents are both black. and lower incomes. The stretch is nicknamed “Cancer Alley” due to the higher cancer rates that exist in the area compared to the rest of the United States.

Lavigne, a retired special educator and lifelong Catholic, started Rise St. James in 2018 when a plastics company planned to build a factory two miles from her home.

“Why would they put the plant here?” Because they knew people weren’t going to talk,” Lavigne said. “And they were right. People weren’t going to talk. That’s when God touched me and told me to fight – and I did.

Shortly after the organization was formed, Lavigne and other Rise St. James members successfully campaigned against Wanhua Chemical’s proposed plant construction. Wanhua withdrew its land use application for the plant in September 2019. The group is now working to halt 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 bidding,” Lavigne said. “I want to do the job he wants me to do. He put a fight inside me that I can’t even explain. I approached him. And I’m so glad to be closer to him because now we can fight anything.

The Laetare Medal is announced annually on the fourth Sunday of Lent, known as Laetare Sunday, and dates back to 1883. Our Lady established the award as the American equivalent of the Golden Rose, a papal honor that dates back to XI century.

Previous recipients of the award are 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 leader and gospel singer Carla Harris.

The Laetare medal bears the Latin inscription magna is veritas and praevalebit (“Truth is mighty and it will prevail”). Each year, the prize is awarded to a Catholic “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences and exemplified the ideals of the Church and enriched the patrimony of mankind”.

Lavigne will receive the 2022 Laetare Medal at the University’s commencement ceremony in May.

Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg

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