French industrialist; b. La Neuville-Lez-Wasigny, Ardennes, Jan. 17, 1829; d. Nice, Nov. 25, 1915. At the age of 25 he was chief of a textile plant that had been founded by his father at Val des Bois, near Reims. Believing that the "most important work of our age is the work of the salvation of our brothers the workers" he transformed his enterprise into a Christian corporation that was also an archconfraternity under the patronage of Our Lady of the Factory (Notre Dame de l'usine). A chapel was placed at the center of the buildings and the principal objective was to maintain the cohesion of the "family" of workers. Committees of workers participated in the management of the project. Harmel lived among the workers with his large family and was known as the "good father." He was encouraged in his endeavors by Abp. Langénieux of Reims and by Father Vincent de Paul bailly, Albert de Mun, and C. H. R. de la tour du pin, early leaders of Catholic social action. His work became known throughout France and abroad, and it was blessed by Pius IX.
Harmel belonged to the ultramontanist wing of French Catholicism. After he was widowed in 1870, he renounced the idea of the priesthood only after the personal intervention of Pius IX, whose advice he had sought. His bond with Rome was further strengthened under Leo XIII and was not weakened under Pius X. In 1887 he directed the first pilgrimage of French workers to Rome; 100 employers, 1,400 workers, and 300 priests participated. In 1889, a pilgrimage of "France at work" (la France au travail ), which he had prepared by lecture tours, attracted 10,000 participants. These pilgrimages helped to hasten the publication of the encyclical rerum novarum (1891), which became the charter of the movement led by Harmel.
To make the social doctrine of the Church better known, Harmel established Secrétariats du Peuple, popular lectures, and Christian circles of social studies throughout France. From 1893 on, he organized congresses of Christian workers that exemplified the growing preference given to the action of workers over the action of employers. These organizations were constitutive elements in the formation of French Christian Democracy. Harmel was one of the promoters of the movement, which explains his role at the congress of Reims in 1894, and later, first at Reims, then at Lyons, in 1896. Yet, when plans were made to make Christian Democracy a political party, he joined the national council only with reservations, as he preferred social education to politics. This was prior to the publication of the encyclical Graves de communi (1901).
Harmel felt that social education belonged to priests. After 1887, therefore, he organized at Val des Bois annual vacation sessions where seminarians and young priests met men who were involved in social action and where they received appropriate theological instruction. These sessions were forerunners of the Semaines Sociales de France instituted in 1904.
Léon Harmel belonged to the Third Order of St. Francis. As a result a large part of French Catholic social action follows Franciscan spirituality.
Bibliography: g. guitton, Léon Harmel, 2 v. (Paris 1907). h. rollet, L'Action sociale des catholiques en France, 1871–1914, 2 v. (Paris 1947–58) v.1.