Harmel Academy Unlocks Men’s ‘Manual Genius’ Through Prayer, Literature and Machining

The past few years have seen a rise of interest among Catholics in such vocational academies and trade schools. Michigan-based Harmel Academy led the way.

‘Skilled Trades. Great Books. Spiritual Fraternity.’ These are hallmarks of a Harmel Academy education.
‘Skilled Trades. Great Books. Spiritual Fraternity.’ These are hallmarks of a Harmel Academy education. (photo: Courtesy photo)

Nathan Hatley loved reading and theology, but realized that he shouldn’t pursue a career in an academic discipline. 

Instead, he decided to pursue a life in the trades, discovering Harmel Academy of the Trades, a unique institution that combines spiritual, intellectual and vocational training to teach men like Hatley that they can be a “pious, learned man and also a hard worker with your hands.”

The past few years have seen a rise of interest among Catholics in such vocational academies and trade schools. With initiatives in Ohio, New Mexico and California, Michigan-based Harmel Academy led the way. 

Harmel opened its doors in 2020 amid the COVID lockdowns and graduated its pioneer class in 2022. Harmel was founded by two Catholic friends, Ryan Pohl and Brian Black — the first a machinist, the other a building renovator. They often spoke about how hard it was to find good workers. They wondered why so many Catholic institutions offered intellectual and spiritual formation but didn’t offer courses of study in the trades.

Pohl prayed about it and realized that perhaps nothing like such a Catholic trade school existed because he was called to start one. The college’s current president, David Michael Phelps, detailed some of its mission in a recent Register interview. The school’s goal, he said, “is to apprentice men, especially in their work, to Jesus Christ. And that is not something you can do with a curriculum, but is a way of life and has to be learned with a way of life.”

Harmel has three main components to the formation it offers: technical, intellectual and spiritual. All three of these pillars are in the context of a fraternal community: An all-male academy, Harmel creates a community where men can live in a spirit of camaraderie as they pursue studies of machining along with humanities over two years. The year 2022 saw its first graduating class of six, and the academy has now expanded to more than 20 students from 12 states. 

President Phelps explained that their “recruiting is almost entirely word-of-mouth” among home-school parents. While they will continue to grow, size is not their first concern. “Part of our design is to be responsive to real, practical, local needs,” Phelps said. “Our tracks need to fit local demand.” Consequently, expansion is likely to look like founding similar institutions across the United States rather than indefinitely adding capacity and a larger selection of courses to Harmel.

The focus of Harmel’s two-year program is on manufacturing, with an introductory year that can stand on its own. This first year incorporates hands-on training across a variety of skills to provide every man with a tangible experience of a variety of tasks and trades so they can make a better-informed decision as to what to specialize in during their second year. 

“We think that it’s good for the men to have some experience before they choose, built around a discernment of what they are called to do,” Phelps explained. 

The first year includes instruction in machining, welding, electrical, construction, carpentry, automotive, plumbing and HVAC, with some fabrication mixed in.

This introductory year can be stand-alone, and some use it as a gap year. Those who continue to the second year, however, continue as apprentices in the school’s state-licensed apprenticeship program. During this time, the students start working part-time in local shops. One of the students from the first graduating class, Karsten Molitor (’22), said it’s surprising how much overlap there is between hands-on working in a shop and learning the techniques in class. His classmate Matthew Asselin called Harmel a great place to “build your strengths and even find your weaknesses.”

Traditionally, the apprenticeship model hires someone to work in a shop during the day while sending them to further studies at night, a process that usually takes four years. At Harmel, the technical training is front-ended: During the apprenticeship year, Harmel students work three days and are in class three days of the week. After graduating the apprenticeship year, they work full-time in order to gain sufficient hours for their journeyman cards.

Currently, there are three tracks for apprenticeship: machinist and machine builder, plus a robotics track. Phelps describes this interlocking of disciplines: “Machine builders” make the devices machinists use to make other things, while the robotics people approach it from the standpoint of linking machines together in systems.

“People don’t understand how sophisticated manufacturing is,” Phelps said. “People are rediscovering that this is a highly skilled area of work; Michigan is known for its automotive, as well as other types, including aerospace, medical and defense manufacturing.” Because there is a dearth of manual workers in the states, these careers pay well and promise to be in constant demand. And because Harmel students work while they are in college, they can pay for their education almost simultaneously, graduating with very little debt.

The backgrounds of men coming to Harmel are various: some attend straight out of classical high schools, others from home-schooling, and others transfer from other colleges. Often “a fellow feels he doesn’t fit in where he was before,” revealed Phelps. This is because no one has recognized his “manual genius.” 

“Classical education often does a great job of reclaiming the imagination in the head but doesn’t always do a great job of connecting it back to the body,” he explained. “Guys with a ‘manual genius’ who love the Lord don’t have many options. One of the things that really helps is being with a group of like-minded men.”

Living and studying with others who are like-minded is a great source of encouragement to students like Daniel Parker (’22). 

With support from brothers and teachers, Daniel found that he could obtain the future he wished he had. Harmel challenged him to do things he “would never have done in a million years” and helped him learn to embrace and see beyond things he was afraid of.

“Their imaginations get fired up when the engine does,” as Phelps put it. It’s freeing for the men to be around “people that ‘get them,’” and this helps them to step forward in formation.

Since the inception of Harmel, the local bishop has been very supportive: The priest assigned as Harmel’s part-time chaplain is a former welder. When Father Dominic Couturier left welding to become a priest as a late vocation, he thought he was leaving the life of the trades behind him. Now, as Harmel’s chaplain, he serves as a welding instructor, teaches jiu-jitsu, and provides sacraments for the academy. 

Learning is hands-on at Harmel.
Learning is hands-on at Harmel.(Photo: Courtesy photos)

Emphasizing integration into the local community, Harmel encourages students to find their own parish for Sunday Mass and become part of the parish’s life. During the week, Harmel students are required to come together for lauds, vespers and compline in the little oratory situated in their dorm. Every week includes an evening of formation, group spiritual direction, as well as opportunities for personal interior and “external forum” spiritual direction. Thus, Harmel tries to make a healthy spiritual life a regular part of the “daily grind.”

The intellectual formation is offered through a cycle of integrated humanities courses called “God, Man, and Work.”

 Inspired by a combination of John Senior’s example and the Oxford Method, there are no research papers, with the classes focused on mastery of dialogue and debate instead. 

“We are not looking to create professional academics, but men whose imaginations are fired up by the Tradition of Church and Western civilization who can then take that and translate it to the modern context of their lives,” Phelps explained. The course includes history, literature, philosophy and film, as well as some non-traditional texts across various disciplines. The curriculum includes Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, as well as Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, and the postmodern writer Samuel Beckett alongside classics of Plato and St. Thomas Aquinas. Phelps noted that since they “have a fair number of guys from classical backgrounds, we try not to duplicate what they have already read.” 

Since most universities exclusively speak of such authors and their ideas in an “academic idiom,” Phelps sees one of Harmel’s important tasks as “translating these insights into a modern idiom” so that tradesmen won’t think it’s “not for them.” This requires integration, “but not an artificial bringing together, which is why community is important,” Phelps underscored. 

When asked what he would say to benefactors, Daniel Parker (’22) said, “There are no words to express my gratitude to be able to be here.” Harmel needs to exist “because there has been a separation of faith from work,” he continued. 

With its faith and Great Books-informed teaching of trades, Harmel unlocks the “manual genius” of its students and has the potential, in Parker’s words, to “make the world a lot better in the long run” because “the attitude we bring to work of joy” will “rub off on people.”