Courageous Women of Faith Profile: Sharon Lavigne

Jan 27, 2022

As a child growing up in the 1950’s Sharon was surrounded by a loving family, living on property in St. James Parish, LA, that had been in her family for generations.

Her father was a sugarcane farmer, they also grew vegetables and fruit, kept chickens, cows for milk, and cattle for beef. She went fishing and shrimping with her grandfather along the Mississippi River. They were truly living off the land. They treated the land with reverence and were rewarded with abundant crops.

As part of an extended family with deep spiritual, Catholic roots, she had the added blessing of being part of something bigger than herself, which offered her stability. She grew into a strong, deeply spiritual woman.

As a young woman, Sharon became a teacher of children with special needs, a job she loved. To this day she still calls her students, “My babies.” Sharon is a mother of six, and grandmother of twelve.

In 1968 change came to St. James Parish. It started off as a subtle change, offering great promise to the people of the community. A chemical plant was built along the river. The company offered work for the folks in the area. Very seductive offer to those in need. There was no talk of the chemical waste they would introduce into the river, the air, or the land.

From that first plant in 1968 the area has been overrun by plants, now numbering thirty-two petrochemical plants along Sharon’s beloved river. Poison is being spewed into the air every day! People are becoming sick. If they stay outdoors too long, they develop skin rashes. They are dying.

St. James Parish is now known as Cancer Alley! The cancer rate in St. James Parish is far above what the EPA says are acceptable levels, there is no debate about there being a cancer cluster in this area.

The corporations responsible for this lurid pollution manage to continue their damage without a second thought. To them, it is business as usual.

Fifty years after that first plant, Sharon had reached her breaking point. In 2018, she went home after another “useless” meeting, unable to convince the powerful people they had to change their polluting ways, feeling completely overwhelmed, and broken.

She sat on her porch and began to weep.

And she prayed. She asked God for guidance. She asked God if she should sell her land and move away. At that moment Sharon heard a calling from God. He told her to stay in her home and fight!

Sharon has done that. She invited her neighbors over, ten people joined her at that first meeting. They started planning ways to fight. They began marching, they began making flyers, handing them out wherever they could. They got the word out to as many people as they could.

They formed a grassroots organization called Rise St. James! Sharon went from being a teacher in a classroom to a teacher on the street!

They have been successful in stopping a proposed plant owned by Wanhua in 2019! Just as they were getting the news of their success, another company, Formosa Plastics applied for permission to build in St. James Parish. They are currently fighting Formosa.

When I spoke with Sharon, she told me how much she loved living in St. James Parish, how as a child it was a beautiful place, with clean fresh air, and that they never got sick.

She also told me “God put this fight in me. I didn’t choose it; God gave it to me.”

I have no doubt.

Sharon Lavigne is a force to be reckoned with. She is a kind woman, with a righteous cause. That is a dangerous combination, indeed. And I admire her greatly!

There is more I could say about this inspiring woman of faith, however, space is limited.

Please join us on Thursday, February 3, 2022. Sharon will be at St. Ignatius Loyola to receive the Mary Magdalen Award, and the unveiling of the banners.

– Pattie Hughes