SOUTH BEND, Indiana — Sharon Lavigne, an environmental justice activist, will receive the University of Notre Dame’s 2022 Laetare Medal, the oldest and most prestigious honor given to American Catholics.

It will be presented at the university’s May 15 graduation ceremony.

Lavigne is the founder and director of Rise St. James — a faith-based grassroots organization fighting for environmental justice in St. James Civil Parish, Louisiana.

A retired special education teacher, she has always lived in St. James Parish and has watched the region transform from idyllic farmland into an area plagued by industrial pollution.

“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 Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, 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 includes part of an area nicknamed “cancer alley,” an 85-mile stretch of land along the Mississippi River that has more than 150 petrochemical plants and refineries and where cancer rates are more than 700 times that of the rest of the United States.

Although Lavigne never envisioned herself as an activist, she was inspired to create Rise St. James in 2018 when a plastics corporation received the go-ahead to build another plant in St. James Parish — two miles from her home. At the time, many in her community believed that fighting against the proposed multibillion-dollar manufacturing facility was a lost cause.

Lavigne and the members of Rise St. James successfully campaigned against the construction of a plant proposed by Wanhua Chemical. They organized marches, spoke out at town hall and parish council meetings, partnered with other environmental justice organizations, and produced signs, ads and reports on the negative health and environmental impact of the industry’s pollutants. In September 2019, Wanhua withdrew its land use application.

The group is currently working to stop construction of a $9.4 billion chemical plant, proposed by Formosa Plastics.

For her efforts, Lavigne received the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2021 and has been named to the Forbes “50 over 50” impact list.

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 in a statement. “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.”

Notre Dame also announced that Archbishop Borys Gudziak, metropolitan archbishop for Ukrainian Catholics in the U.S., will be the principal speaker and receive an honorary degree at the graduation ceremony.

The archbishop heads the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia.

“The students, faculty and staff at Notre Dame have demonstrated continuing solidarity with Ukraine over this past month, and I know that they will benefit from and appreciate hearing the words of Archbishop Gudziak at our graduation celebration in May,” Jenkins said in a statement.