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University announces 2019 Laetare Medal recipient

| Friday, May 17, 2019

Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in the print edition of The Observer on April 1. 

The University announced in a Sunday press release it would award the 2019 Laetare Medal to Norman C. Francis — the president of Xavier University of Louisiana — during Notre Dame’s 2019 Commencement.

In the press release, University President Fr. John Jenkins lauded Francis’ many achievements.

“For more than 50 years, Dr. Francis has been at the center of civil rights advocacy by leveraging the power of Catholic higher education,” Jenkins said in the release. “In bestowing the Laetare Medal upon him, Notre Dame recognizes his leadership in the fight for social justice through educational empowerment.”

According to the press release, Francis has served as the president of Xavier University for 47 years. During this time, the school’s enrollment has increased threefold and its endowment is now eight times larger than it was at the beginning of his tenure. Nationally, the school has the largest number of African American students who have graduated with undergraduate degrees in biology, life sciences, chemistry, physics and pharmacy.

Xavier University is both a Catholic and historically black college/university (HBCU). The school was founded by St. Katharine Drexel in 1925, at a time of legal segregation in the United States, the release said. The founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament was “heir to a banking fortune” and advocated for racial equality for African Americans and Native Americans using her economic resources.

In the release, Francis saluted Drexel’s work.

“I did not build Xavier; I was part of Katharine Drexel’s mission to provide a quality education for all,” Francis said in the release. “All the people I worked with were part of this plan and mission, which was not only honorable, but was totally necessary when you look back at what the United States was at the time.”

Francis was born to a family of five children in Lafayette, Louisiana in 1931. Throughout his childhood, he attended Catholic schools that were made possible by Drexel’s philanthropy, according to the release. He was admitted to New Orleans’ Loyola University Law School in 1952, becoming the first African American student accepted to the law school. Furthermore, his brother, “the Most Reverend Joseph Francis, auxiliary bishop of Newark,” was the fourth African American bishop in the United States. Francis served in the army and in 1957 accepted a job as “dean of men” at Xavier, instead of entering a career in legal practice.

“It didn’t take long for me to see that I could do more good educating young African-Americans, and when I look at the stats and where we are nationally, I never regretted it,” Francis said in the release.

According to the release, Francis accepted his job as president of Xavier on April 4, 1968 — which, according to the release, was “the same day Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated” in Memphis, Tennessee.

In the release, Xavier said he feels honored to receive the Laetare Medal.

“I am honored by Notre Dame recognizing me in this way,” he said. “I think the fact that I have the privilege of being among the Laetare awardees is itself a hope and an inspiration, not just for the students, but for many others as well.”

In addition to being the president of Xavier, Francis has served in a multitude of other roles as well, the release said.

“While solidifying Xavier’s reputation of academic excellence, Francis gained renown as a civic leader and an exceptional statesman. He served in advisory roles to eight U.S. presidents on education and civil rights issues and has served on 54 boards and commissions,” the release said. “He has been a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, a member of the Board of Trustees at the Catholic University of America and a member of the board of directors of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice. He also served as chair of the Louisiana Recovery Authority after Hurricane Katrina. In 2006, President George W. Bush honored Francis with the nation’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”

Francis has also previously received two honorary awards from Notre Dame, the release said.

“Francis received an honorary doctor of laws degree from Notre Dame in 1988 for his commitment to education and civil rights. The University also recognized him in 2006 with a rare second honorary doctorate for his tireless work to rebuild his own institution and serve as chair of Louisiana Recovery Authority,” the release said.

Notre Dame has awarded the Laetare Medal since 1883. The recipient is announced on the fourth Sunday of Lent, also known as Laetare Sunday — hence, the name of the award. It was intended ”as an American counterpart to the Golden Rose, a papal honor that antedates the eleventh century,” the release said. Every year, the medal is awarded to “a Catholic ‘whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity.’”

According to the release, the award’s previous recipients include a number of noteworthy Catholics.

“Previous recipients of the Laetare Medal include Civil War Gen. William Rosecrans, operatic tenor John McCormack, President John F. Kennedy, Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, novelist Walker Percy, Vice President Joe Biden, Speaker of the House John Boehner, labor activist Monsignor George G. Higgins, Homeboy Industries founder Rev. Gregory Boyle, S.J., Rio Grande Valley Catholic Charities executive director Sister Norma Pimentel, M.J., singer Aaron Neville and actor Martin Sheen,” the release said.

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