Faith & Service

The Fighter

2022 Laetare Medalist Sharon Lavigne

March 27, 2022

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St. James Catholic Church is an unassuming but inviting brown brick building. It sits well back from the river, tucked between two stately live oak trees draped in Spanish moss.

Established in 1757, the parish is older than the nation it resides in.

A curving two-lane highway out front is nearly empty on this Sunday morning, but every car that approaches seems to turn into the church’s rapidly filling lot. As the wooden double doors open to welcome parishioners on a sunny, unseasonably chilly spring day, the voices of the choir can already be heard, lifted in worship.

Two women walk outside in front of a brick church.
Rise St. James founder Sharon Lavigne, leaves with her friend Deborah Favorite after mass at St. James Catholic Church where both sing in the choir in St. James Parish, Louisiana.

The scene could be one from any number of small, rural parishes in the Southern United States — except for the hulking white storage tanks of a petrochemical refinery in the background and the tangle of pipelines that arch over Louisiana Highway 18, spewing effluent from the plant into the Mississippi River.

Those landmarks situate the church unmistakably in St. James Parish, Louisiana, in the middle of a region known as Cancer Alley for the sheer number of petrochemical plants and the resulting air and water pollution that has caused local cancer rates to soar.

A marquee near the road offers a simple prayer: Be with me, Lord, when I am in trouble.


Inside the church, Sharon Lavigne’s clear alto harmonizes with the choir as they sing hymns of praise and thanksgiving.

In the last few years, her voice has become stronger.

Lavigne is the founder and director of Rise St. James, a faith-based grassroots organization fighting for environmental justice in St. James Parish. Since 2018, she has been taking on the corporations seeking to build new facilities in the overburdened region — a predominantly Black, lower-income community where toxic emissions are already among the highest in the United States.

A church choir sings during mass.
Lavigne (top, left) sings in the choir at St. James Catholic Church during Sunday morning mass.

“I'm ready to fight any industry that’s trying to come in here to take over our lives. Because it's a death sentence for us if we don’t. We are fighting to live.”

The University of Notre Dame is honoring Lavigne with the 2022 Laetare Medal for her work. Established at Notre Dame in 1883, the Laetare Medal was conceived as an American counterpart of the Golden Rose, a papal honor that antedates the 11th century. Past Laetare recipients include President John F. Kennedy, Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, novelist Walker Percy, Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House John Boehner. It is considered the most prestigious honor given to an American Catholic.

A retired special education teacher, Lavigne never imagined herself as an activist. But when she made the connection between the illnesses and deaths she was witnessing in her community and industrial pollution, she felt compelled to speak out.

“This is our land. This is our home, and I’m ready to fight. I’m ready to fight any industry that’s trying to come in here to take over our lives. Because it’s a death sentence for us if we don’t. We are fighting to live.”


Lavigne’s family has lived in St. James Parish for generations. She was born here, baptized in St. James Catholic Church, and grew up on her parents’ sugar cane farm. But St. James was different then.

She remembers helping her father dig potatoes from their garden and pick figs and pecans from their trees. Her grandfather caught fish and shrimp in the Mississippi River, while she and her siblings played along the levee or splashed in the water. Above all, she remembers fresh air. Clean water. Productive soil.

“Oh, when I was a little girl, we had everything that a person would want, and everything a person would need to survive,” she said. “Now, the grass is not as green as it used to be. And I’ve seen our pecan trees die. And our persimmon trees, and my orange trees, my fig trees, my elderberry trees — all of those trees are dead. … And we can’t do a garden like we used to do when I was little. Now the land and everything that grows on it is poison.”

A woman wearing a red sweater and cross necklace stands in front of a chemical plant looking off camera.
Lavigne stands in front of a chemical plant near her home in St. James Parish, Louisiana.

The remnants of that life are still here in St. James. Lavigne still lives on the land her grandfather purchased. She drives by the schools she attended and then dedicated her career to. She visits friends and neighbors she’s known since she was small. Some local farmers continue to grow sugar cane.

But everywhere, the shadow of the industry looms over them.

The high school where she worked is now owned by a chemical company that produces methanol. One local sugar cane farm sits adjacent to a massive 140-acre, artificial lake that stores hundreds of millions of gallons of radioactive wastewater, too toxic to be released into the river.

And many of her neighbors have either moved away or fallen ill.

The Mississippi River near St. James Parish, Louisiana.
A cemetery in the foreground and a chemical plant in the background.
A chemical plant can be seen in the background of St. James Catholic Church Cemetery.

“See that house there? The husband died of cancer last year. And the wife, she has cancer, too.

“And that house? She died of cancer.

“Over there, oh, that’s a sad case. They just found out their son has cancer. It’s in his stomach.

“My sister-in-law died with breast cancer. She worked in the industry. My neighbor on my right side, she died with cancer. And my neighbor on the left side died with cancer. And a whole lot of other people. A whole lot. You can’t sit down and just write a list — it’s that many. Because if you start to write the list, you’re going to leave out some.”


Lavigne was in high school when the first plant came into St. James in the late 1960s. At that point, the community celebrated the jobs and economic growth it would bring to the area.

“Everybody welcomed that plant. Everybody thought it was something nice coming to our little town. Then more and more started to come,” she recalls. “But we didn’t know that plant was going to poison us.

“What good are jobs if they spread cancer all over St. James Parish?”

Environmental Racism

The Story of Cancer Alley

“Cancer Alley” is an 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River that is home to more than 150 petrochemical factories and refineries. According to one analysis, the cancer risk in this region can be as high as 1 in 210, or 47 times the EPA’s acceptable risk limit.

The region was once known as “Plantation Country” for its high concentration of sprawling fields and farms where enslaved people were forced into labor to provide the backbone of a booming sugar industry in the 1800s.

In a 2021 statement, the United Nations issued a statement noting the connection between past and present, calling for an end to the “environmental racism” that plagues the largely African-American inhabitants of the corridor today. Also in 2021, President Joe Biden cited Cancer Alley specifically in signing an executive order on tackling the climate crisis.

Scattered crosses and stones in a small cemetery.

Thirty-two factories and refineries are in St. James Parish alone, and a dozen are in its 5th district — within a few miles of Sharon Lavigne’s home.

In 2017, the plants released more than 1.6 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the air of St. James Parish, including sulfuric acid, n-Hexane, ammonia, methanol, styrene and benzene, to name a few.

Two yard signs in a neighboorhood that say 'RISE St. James' and 'We live on death row - No Formosa'.
Dark black smoke coming out of an industrail chemical plant against clear blue skies.

There’s a clear correlation between race and household income in the area and the number of chemical plants sited nearby. The 4th and 5th districts, which contain more plants than any other districts in St. James, are home to populations that are 64 percent and 90 percent Black, respectively, with nearly a third of residents living below the poverty line.

“The Civil Rights Act and the Louisiana Constitution are supposed to protect Black communities from this type of environmental racism. They have not in Cancer Alley.”

A 2014 land use plan adopted by the St. James Parish Council exacerbated that disparity when it rezoned residential areas in the 4th and 5th districts as “residential / future industrial” to allow for further development.

“The Civil Rights Act and the Louisiana Constitution are supposed to protect Black communities from this type of environmental racism. They have not in Cancer Alley,” Lavigne said. “Our agencies are rubber stamping every permit that comes across their desks.”

Less than two years after the land use plan was adopted, the local government sold St. James High School, where Lavigne taught for 38 years, to a chemical corporation. Teachers and students — who learned of the sale only after it was complete — were forced to relocate to other districts.

White smoke coming out of an industrail chemical plant against clear blue skies.
A chemical plant located in a region nicknamed “Cancer Alley” in St. James Parish, Louisiana.

It was then that Lavigne, who decided to retire, found herself reflecting on the changes she’d seen in the area — from an increase in the number of children with asthma and developmental disabilities in her classroom to the growing number of friends and family with cancers, respiratory issues and other illnesses.

“We saw a lot of people getting sick and a lot of people dying. But we didn’t know where it was coming from at that time,” she said. “We didn’t have a clue that it was coming from industry. And I thought the world was about to come to an end because we had so many people getting sick. I thought that the sun might be wiped out after a while. That’s the way I felt.

“But I was wrong. It was not the end of the world — it was the plants.”


Lavigne herself was diagnosed with autoimmune hepatitis in 2016, and has since learned that she has elevated levels of aluminum and lead in her bloodstream. The turning point came for her when she researched the disease and discovered that it can be triggered by environmental toxins. As she continued to look into the environmental and health impacts of the industries that surrounded her, she began attending meetings of a local nonprofit organization focused on curbing the pollution.

A woman writes something down on a wall calendar.
Lavigne writes down her appointments on a calendar in the kitchen at her home.
A woman works on her laptop at a cluttered kitchen table.
Lavigne works on her computer in her kitchen.

But two years later, another corporation received the greenlight to build a multibillion-dollar chemical plant in St. James Parish, two miles from Lavigne’s home. While many in the community believed that fighting the proposed facility was a lost cause, Lavigne felt called by God to take action.

“I would sit on my porch and read my Bible. I was depressed because I thought we had to move, and I didn’t know where I was going to move,” she said. “And that’s when I prayed. I sat on this porch and watched the birds and prayed.

A woman sits in a chair on her front porch. A 'Rise St. James' yard sign in the foreground.
Lavigne sits on the front porch at her home.

“I went to him and asked him what I should do, and I waited for his answer. When his voice spoke to me, I cried. Because it was so amazing. And that’s when I got my answer — he told me to fight.”


Lavigne launched Rise St. James with an informal gathering of 10 people in her living room. She now manages a small staff and more than 20 regular volunteers.

Chasity White, a fellow resident of St. James Parish’s 5th district, has been with her from the beginning.

“Sharon has been a source of hope and inspiration to both myself and the community. She is always working to help the people of St. James. And when she speaks out on behalf of them, she speaks passionately.” —Chasity White, resident of St. James Parish

White first met Lavigne when she was 15 and a student in Lavigne’s high school. When Lavigne found out that White wanted to join the pep squad but didn’t have transportation, she volunteered to drive her to every football game that year. Along the way, the two became friends.

“Sharon has been a source of hope and inspiration to both myself and the community,” White said. “She is always working to help the people of St. James. And when she speaks out on behalf of them, she speaks passionately.”

White now lives just down the street from the former St. James High School. Her son was attending the school and was able to walk there at the time it was sold. She said she joined Rise St. James, in part, because she wants her children to be able to have the same experiences and sense of heritage she had growing up.

“St. James means a lot to me, because I have history here. My granddad’s store is still operating after 50 years,” White said. “And people may ask the question, ‘Well, why fight?’ Why fight? Because this is my home. This is my roots. This is where I grew up. This is where love is, where family is.”


Lavigne and the members of Rise St. James have spoken out at town hall and parish council meetings, organized a march from New Orleans to the governor’s mansion in Baton Rouge, allied with other environmental justice organizations and produced signs, ads and reports on the negative effects of the industry’s pollutants.

They had their first win when they successfully campaigned against a proposed $1.25 billion chemical plant from Wanhua Chemical. In September 2019, the corporation withdrew its land use application.

Lavigne and members of Rise St. James attend a hearing in Baton Rouge, as part of their lawsuit against Formosa Plastics.

But the organization continues to fight another Goliath — the construction of a $9.4 billion Formosa Plastics complex that would double the level of toxic emissions in St. James Parish.

Along with their grassroots efforts, Rise St. James and their community partners have initiated a lawsuit against Formosa in response to its repeated failure to meet Environmental Protection Agency standards.

In recognition of her work, Lavigne received the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2021 and has been named to the Forbes “50 over 50” impact list.

Lavigne’s father — an activist in his own right — was an inspiration and an early role model for her. He served as president of the local chapter of the NAACP and worked to integrate St. James schools in the 1960s. He liked to remind her that God has a plan, she said.

Outside a woman speaks into a microphone. Blurred out behind her is a tall chain linked fence with red flowers. A group of volunteers wearing the same yellow shirt sit and stand clapping in a field. Three people stand in front of a tall chain linked fence. One person holds their fist in the air.
Lavigne speaks to community members at the Rise St. James’ first annual African American Celebration at the gravesite of enslaved ancestors at the Buena Vista Cemetery. The land was purchased by Formosa Plastics for a proposed petrochemical complex. (Photos: Goldman Environmental Prize)

“He was a fighter, and he always walked by faith,” she said. “He said his prayers, and he always said prayer changes things. And I hear his voice all the time, telling me prayer changes things. And I can see it. I see it.”

As she continues to fight — and pray — Lavigne has faith that they will defeat Formosa’s proposal, too, and that the tides are turning as more people become aware of the disproportionate impact of industrial pollution on marginalized communities. Last fall, she welcomed EPA Administrator Michael Regan to St. James Parish, and she will be traveling to Washington, D.C., in June on behalf of Rise St. James.

“So, we have a lot of work to do. Rise St. James is cut out to do work. And Rise St. James will make a difference in St. James Parish, because we are here to save the lives of the people.”

Ultimately, her goal is to restore the health of their community and its members.

“We want to rebuild St. James Parish, especially the 5th district. We want our young people to want to live here; we want to build more homes here,” she said. “We want to get to the point where we have clean air, where we don’t have to buy bottled water, we can drink our own water. And we want to vote out the public officials that are not helping us.

“So, we have a lot of work to do. Rise St. James is cut out to do work. And Rise St. James will make a difference in St. James Parish, because we are here to save the lives of the people.”