First Laetare Medal
In the 1880’s, Notre Dame faculty and administration wanted a way to engage American Catholic lay men and women with the Church hierarchy, so University President Fr. Thomas Walsh decided to bestow a medal of honor each year to an American lay Catholic in similar fashion to the Vatican’s Golden Rose, a papal honor that antedates the 11th century. The University awarded the first Laetare Medal to historian John Gilmary Shea in 1883.
The medal has been awarded annually at Notre Dame to a Catholic “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity.” It was called the Laetare Medal because it was initially presented, and is now announced, on Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent. In 1968, the search committee opened the Laetare Medalist requirements to include clergy, and it has also awarded it jointly to married couples and groups.
Among the previous recipients of the Laetare Medal are Civil War Gen. William Rosecrans, operatic tenor John McCormack, President John F. Kennedy, Catholic Work founder Dorothy Day, novelist Walker Percy, Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House John Boehner, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, labor activist Monsignor George G. Higgins, jazz composer Dave Brubeck and actor Martin Sheen.