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 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,” Notre Dame President Reverend John I. Jenkins said in a press release. “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.”
Lavigne created Rise St. James in 2018, a year when plastics companies in China and Taiwan announced plans to build in St. James Parish, between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Wanhua Plastics has planned a $1.25 billion complex at Convent, and Formosa Plastics has secured permits for a $9.4 billion complex.
Wanhua canceled its request in 2019, saying it had scaled back plans and was considering another site.
Last year, a Pentagon official ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to do a full environmental review of group member Formosa Plastics FG LA LLC’s plans for 10 chemical plants and four other major facilities. And Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan has made the parish one of the stops on his “Journey to Justice” tour.
In January, the EPA announced a pilot project combining high-tech air pollution monitoring with additional inspectors in three parishes, including St. James and the neighboring parish of St. John the Baptist.
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”.
Among other Louisiana recipients, 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 his area thought it would be pointless to fight the chemical giants.
“Why would they put the plant here?” Because they knew people weren’t going to talk,” Lavigne told Notre Dame. “And they were right. People weren’t going to talk. That’s when God touched me and told me to fight – and I did.
His parish holds 32 of more than 150 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 low-income.
“The Civil Rights Act and the Louisiana Constitution are supposed to protect black communities from this kind of environmental racism,” Lavigne said. “Our agencies automatically approve every permit that comes in.”
A life member of St. James Catholic Church, Lavigne said her faith has sustained her throughout her journey — and her advocacy work has brought her closer to God.
“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.
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