Leman, Jules (1826–80), priest and educationist, was born 30 June 1826 at his parents’ parish school in Deulemont, north-east of Armentières, northern France. His father, François Leman, was a Belgian migrant and his mother, Lucille (née Lecomte), a local woman; both were teachers with teaching in their families. When his mother died during Jules's childhood and was succeeded by a stepmother, he inherited Lucille's fervent catholicism, shaping his vocational and caring temperament. His exposure from birth to educational values orientated him towards the classics, which he studied as a pupil in his father's school.
In spite of the anti-clericalism or, at best, state-Christianity fostered by French governments since the revolution of 1789, Jules entered the diocesan seminary school in Cambrai on his second attempt. He found it in transition to a liberal curriculum that included modern languages and the sciences, an exciting occasion for the novice whose future career would so closely follow his formation as a priest. He excelled as a student and in 1846 left early to join the Jesuit order at Saint-Acheul. In 1847, however, having failed to adjust to his surroundings, Leman was referred instead to the Congregation of the Holy Heart of Mary, recently established for the African missions.
When this Congregation merged in 1848 with the Society of the Holy Spirit missionaries, forming the Congregation of the Holy Spirit (CSSp), anglicised subsequently as the Holy Ghost Fathers, Leman was in his second year of studies at Notre Dame du Gard, the junior seminary near Amiens. His religious duties included responsibility for church music, which he had studied in Deulemont. Ordained in 1851, he joined the staff of the senior seminary at Amiens, which transferred to Paris in 1855. Leman, meanwhile sent to Rome to help found the French Seminary there, returned to Paris as sub-director of studies. In 1856–7 he was back in Rome as bursar of the French Seminary, which temporarily occupied rooms in the Irish College. Staving off student critics who blamed him for the poor facilities, Leman returned in frustration to Paris in 1857, both as bursar and sub-director of senior seminarians. In 1858 he was appointed director of novices and assistant superior of the recently acquired abbey of Langonnet, near Morbihan, Britanny. Impatience with his superior's relaxed approach to studies caused friction and in 1859 Leman received an assignment, less than enthusiastically undertaken, to recruit English-speaking seminarians in catholic Ireland for the African missions.
Knowing little or no English, Leman and a small group of Holy Ghost Fathers arrived in Dublin 28 October 1859, accompanied by Père Marie-Louis Holley who spoke good English and had made an initial journey to Ireland to establish church contacts and open the way for a recruiting drive. Although his group was perceived as a potential burden on the overstretched Dublin archdiocese of Paul Cullen (qv), who was reluctant to assist Leman, both the diocesan college at All Hallows and the Carmelite order successfully supported Leman's request for permission to open a Holy Ghost house at Blanchardstown on the north-western outskirts of Dublin.
Once established, Leman's mission took an unimagined turn. Observing a lack of genuine vocations for Africa among Irish seminarians and realising the generally low standard of catholic education in a country without a national secondary school system and still emerging from a culture of famine and sectarianism, he sought a suitable location for a combined boys’ secondary school and seminary. He would thus both satisfy the educational needs of the Irish catholic middle classes at home rather than abroad and attract missionary clergy from those who expressed priestly vocations. On the eve of a modest revolution in Irish catholic secondary education, Père Leman's decision, backed by innate scholarly instinct, bore fruit within a year.
In July 1860, despite Holley's doubts about Leman's choice of location, the ‘French College’, Blackrock, resulted from a fortuitous find in an underdeveloped coastal district of south Dublin near Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire). Castledawson House, formerly a protestant school, became available to Leman at a large down payment and an annual rent. His French superiors cautiously agreed to fund the school and seminary, somewhat assured by the proposed fee-paying ‘French’ liberal education combining academic, religious, and sporting instruction. French and German, like most subjects, were taught by ‘French Fathers’ who included men from the volatile Franco–German border area of Alsace-Lorraine. Leman excluded physical punishment and, in the absence of state examinations, offered prize-giving ceremonies complete with a college band in French-style uniforms. Initially all students wore French uniform, the first intake numbering only six day boys and two boarders, notwithstanding the elaborate prospectus which described superior courses and preparation for university, the civil service, and the mercantile and armed services. For a minority drawn to the missions, the Holy Ghost juniorate set ‘scholastics’ apart from lay pupils in certain disciplines. A smaller minority continued to ordination.
Leman, as first rector, saw his secondary school develop rapidly. Even the aloof Cardinal-archbishop Cullen was sufficiently convinced by 1862 to distribute the college prizes. In the same year, Leman was advised to prepare students for the entrance examinations of the recently-founded Catholic University. His college achieved second place in 1863–4 and first in 1864–5, with similar annual performances thereafter. He was confident enough in 1864 to open Rockwell College at Cashel, Co. Tipperary, a parallel institution for southern Ireland. By then, space was becoming Leman's greatest problem in Dublin.
Architectural developments, designed internally by the versatile Père Jean-Martin Ebenrecht from Alsace, steadily increased, building upwards and outwards where space and funding allowed. In spite of a disastrous fire in 1874, Leman persevered, typically mortgaging the college in 1875 to the Carmelite Sisters to borrow the capital for neighbouring Williamstown Castle in Blackrock. This enabled him to establish a preparatory college for the upper civil service, with remarkable results nationally and throughout the British empire. Leman had sufficient personal influence by this time, both with his own French superiors and with Cardinal Cullen, to facilitate the introduction of the St John of God Brothers to Ireland in 1877–8 as hospitallers from France.
Under the Intermediate Education (Ireland) Act, 1878, which allocated finance to secondary schools on the basis of their exam results, the French College and Rockwell thrived. The Faustian price, however, which Leman could hardly have anticipated, was the gradual industrialisation of Irish education for monetary rewards over personal development as characterised by the French College philosophy. Jules Leman was revered by his staff and students; his terminal illness and death 3 June 1880 at Blackrock, aged 54, ended a brief era of educational idealism in Ireland. He was buried beneath the college chapel, a memorial plaque adorning the outer wall.