the Biography of Miss Mathilde Wrede of Finland,
by W. G. Wilson
A few days after her twenty-second birthday her father asked her and her sister to take a walk with him. They reached a farm, and her father told her that he was giving it to her as a birthday present. She was overjoyed when he said he thought of it as a home for discharged prisoners, saying, "And may it bring new hope and courage to many of your unhappy friends!" Her brother would take charge of it.
In many ways Mathilda found this work more difficult than prison visiting. Many of the men were thoroughly weak by nature and could not stand up against the temptations of bad companions or of drink. Because of the sympathy she had always shown them, some of them were inclined to take advantage of her kindness. They thought that she had no experience of farm work and would not know if they slacked. They made the mistake of confusing kindness with weakness. But Mathilda was no milk-and-water saint, as those who noticed her firm chin could guess. She had the fiery fighting temper of her ancestors, and was not easily imposed upon. The men soon found that she expected them to work hard and obey orders.
[Obviously, Mathilda Wrede was founding no liberal/leftist, socialist "nanny state" or welfare state for slackers and social parasites that is presently the case in most European countries of the European Union and is also being implemented in Canada, Australia, and America!--Ed.]
Sometimes her father and brother were both away and she was left alone in charge of the farm.
One day a man, furious because she criticized his work, rushed at her with an axe.
"Put that axe down at once!" she commanded. "And come to the office and talk with me."
She went to her brother's office and sat down.
Would the man come? What should she do if he still defied her?
He came into the room half an hour later.
She looked up and said, "I think you have something to say to me."
"I shall go on writing," she said. "When you haVe anything to say you may speak."
It was a battle of wills. The silence became unbearable and she could hear her heart beating. At last the man spoke.
"I have done wrong."
"It is well that you know it. Now you may go."
And without another word she went on with her writing.
She had her own methods with any of the men who disputed her orders.
She told one of them to roll the oat-field the next day.
"And who's to help me with it?" he asked.
"One man ought to be able to do it alone."
"Oh, yes, that's the way you gentry always talk! You will be given some other work to do."
Next morning before five o'clock, Mathilda began rolling the field. After a time, the man who had refused to do the work felt thoroughly ashamed of himself, and offered to relieve her.
"No, thank you, you have other work to do."
By dinner-time she was tired out, but would not give in. She harnessed a fresh horse to the roller and worked on. Shortly after seven o'clock she had finished the field. She was so stiff and sore that she could scarcely move, but she had won her point. The men looked at her with respect. They were proud of her spirit and endurance, and for many years afterwards told the story of how "our Mathilda" rolled the oat-field.
During the summer months Malthilda Wrede often travelled widely over the silent, beautiful country, visiting the families of prisoners, or seeing prisoners who had earned their discharge or were out on parole. She loved these journeys in the north of her land among the majestic mountains, or in the south where the shining waters of the lakes reflected the blue sky, and waterfalls leapt into black pools far below. The grandeur of the dark forests and the wide plains brought her serenity and strength. Years later, just before her death, she murmured of her joy in going to the "wide and open spaces."
After months spent in stuffy convict cells she loved to hear the wind singing through the pine trees and to fill her lungs with the pure scented air. On one journey she asked the way at a farm, and was thrilled to be warned to go quietly past a marsh, for a big she-bear had a lair there with her cubs.
Often she took these lonely journeys with only a former prisoner for driver and escort.
Many of the discharged prisoners had made good, and were overjoyed to see the woman to whom they owed their new start in life. One young farmer was busy greasing cart-wheels when she drove up to his farm. When he caught sight of her he rushed forward, lifted her out of the cart, and refusing to let her walk a step, carried her into the cottage to see his wife and children. "Now at last I can show her to you," he exclaimed, and they all crowded round. How often he must have described her to them! Later, she had to go all round the little farm, climb fences, jump ditches, and see every one of the animals.
One Sunday morning a Gypsy whom she had helped in prison heard that she was in the neighborhood. He called for her in a high cart, very ramshackle, drawn by an old horse with jingling bells. He begged her to come to his farm, several miles away, where all his relations had gathered in the hope of seeing her. As they drove up, a great company ran out to greet them. In the large living-room the old grandfather of the family sat with a Bible open on the table in front of him. He couldn't read, but to have it there was his way of showing respect for Mathilda and her religion.
Mathilde had many disappointments over discharged prisoners whom she tried to help. Out of gratitude and devotion to her they often really meant to go straight, but it was very hard for them when they were once more outside the prison walls.
Employers would not give them jobs, and often the men felt that every one's hand was against them. When they were hungry and discouraged many of them found it easy to slip into their old ways of stealing and drinking.
Mathilda tried to make them feel that they had always a friend in her, no matter how many times they might break their promise to do better. Sometimes this led to quaint results.
One prisoner, for instance, could not keep away from drink. Mathilda tried every way of helping him, and at last the man promised that he would always come and confess to her when he had given way. One day he came to her and very sheepishly said that he had taken too much drink the day before. Mathilda looked at him sharply.
Your're not sober now," she said accusingly.
"No," he replied miserably. "I shouldn't have had the courage to come and confess to you if I'd been sober, so I just had to go and get drunk first!"
One stormy day Mathilde caught a bad chill. It was a prisoner's birthday, and she had insisted on visiting him. At night she became delirious. Her room was filled with prisoners, she thought. But she could not lie in a comfortable bed while her friends stood. She must get up at once....Hours later she woke up shivering on the cold linoleum-covered floor. In her nightmare she had really got up and had fainted. She was not very strong and the chill developed into lung trouble. When at last she was convalescent, many discharged prisoners came to see her. One was a dock laborer, not altogether sober. He swayed slightly as he stood looking down on her as she lay in bed.
"You are very ill," he said, "very ill indeed. Where do you mean to be buried?"
But Mathilda had no need to be buried that time.
"I haven't time to die," she said, with a twinkle. "Our Heavenly Father knows that."
In 1912, after she had been doing prison work for about thirty years she had to give it up. She was passionately indignant over the neglect of sick prisoners in one of the prison hospitals in which she had visited. She told the prison doctor plainly what she thought about the shockingly dirty conditions of the infirmary, and the way in which the prisoners there were neglected. But the doctor did nothing. Then she went to the prison chaplain, flaming with wrath and pity. The chaplain did nothing. She went to the Governor. She went to the Prison Board, and did not mince her words. Still nothing was done. The men continued to suffer. Finally, in despair, she told her story to a sympathetic journalist. He wrote an article in a leading Finnish newspaper. Headlines appeared about the shocking conditions in prison hospitals. The public clamored for reform, and as a result the conditions were much improved.
But the prison authorities furiously resented Mathilde's "interference."
In the future, they told her, she would be allowed to see prisoners only in the presence of a prison official. She could not agree to this, because she knew that her visits to the prisoners would be useless. The men would no longer regard her as a friend who trusted them. This was a terrible blow, but it was not altogether unexpected. For years she had known that the prison authorities resented her criticism, often outspoken and perhaps not always wise, of their methods. Naturally they did not welcome criticism, and Mathilda had no patience to be restrained and tactful. She refused to compromise, and her prison visits had to stop.
By this time Mathilda was nearly fifty. For almost thirty years she had spent her life in and out of prisons, breathing the stale tained air, listening to shrieks and groans and devilish laughter. Brutal, vicious men had jeered at her and cursed her and threatened her. Men who had committed dreadful crimes told her the stories of them with ghastly details. Many of them had been won by her love and trust to belief in the God who had sent her to them as His messenger. Some of them were out of prison and leading decent lives. She was tired, terribly tired, for she had suffered with those men every step of the way. She might have found it easy to believe that God was giving her a rest now. The prisons were closed to her--her work was done. But Mathilda knew that there were always people longing for help and comfort if you were ready to put yourself out for them. "Cut off from prisoners," she said, "my heart was opened for others, for all men and women are prisoners, and as much in need of love and help as those behind prison bars."
Shortly after, the Great War [World War I] broke out. This was a terrible time for Mathilda Wrede, who believed so strongly in the power of love and not force. Her imagination, always quick to picture the sufferings of others, gave her ceaseless torture. She could not sleep at night for thinking of men and women and little children in agony and loneliness and fear. She had one illness after another, and for a time her friends thought she must die. Gradually she began to get better. As she lay in bed she insisted that her front door should be left ajar, so that any who were in trouble could always find her.
In 1917 Mathilda's beautiful Finland suffered the terrible agony of war on its own soil. Finland lies between Russia and Sweden, and for centuries the two countries had fought for her as two dogs will fight for a bone. Russia won, and when Mathilda was born in 1864 the Czar of Russia ruled as Grand Duke of Finland. So, when the Bolshevik revolution happened in Russia in 1817, it spread also to Finland. As in Russia, the country was divided into "Reds" [Bolsheviks, later becoming known as communists] and "Whites" [Finnish aristocrats or gentry, and nationalists], those who favored the Communist state and those who stood for the old order, although many of the "Whites" felt that the time had come for Finland to win her independence and rule herself. At last, in 1918 [year World War I ended], Finland was recognized as an independent country, and the following year the Finnish Republic was established. But before that heppy time came the country went through all the horrors of civil war. Some of the countries which were fighting in the Great War in Europe took sides in Finland, and made more trouble there to serve their own ends. Suspicion, hatred, famine, war, thousands of innocent folk flung into prison and concentration camps--that was the fate of Finland in those terrible days.
Although by birth and training Mathilde Wrede was "White," she took no sides. She sided only with those who needed help and love and comfort, and these were to be found in every political party and in every class. On the table in her sitting-room she kept a red and a white flower in the same glass [just as an old missionary lady I knew in Bethlehem put up a picture in her mission home with the Arab word for Peace, and the Jewish word for Peace, linked together, and this was just before the Intifada broke out--Ed.], taking care that they were equally lovely. They were a parable. "Each is beautiful," she said. "Each needs the same sunshine and the same water, but the beauty of the one shows up the beauty of the other, and they agree very well in my vase." She was so anxious to be fair to both sides that the "Reds" though of her as a "White," and the "Whites" imagined that she was "Red."
One day two of the "Reds" came to see her, hoping to convert her to their point of view. She listened to all that they had to say. Then, to their surprise, she asked them to look at a picture of Christ gazing over Jerusalem, which hung on her wall. "Jesus," she told them, "was a true Socialist, and His teachings I seek to follow. He went about doing good and helping. To give was His life. From what you tell me of your teaching, your great idea seems to be to take. The difference is great. This Jesus has long been my Master and will always remain so."
One morning her maid hurried in, looking thoroughly frightened. "Oh, Miss Wrede," she gasped, "several Bolshevists have marched into the hall and there are more outside! They look terrible and wicked. Whatever shall we do?"
"Do?" said her mistress. "Why, ask them to come in to see me, of course."
Three young men came to the door as spokesmen for the rest.
"Good morning, boys--and caps off," she greeted them in her pleasant, firm voice. "And now, what do you want."
"Yes," she said, "I happen to have quite a lot of money in the house, but it is not for you or for me, but for some old sick people."
"We are hungry," they said then.
"Well, I was just going to have my lunch. Let us see if there is enough for all of us."
She lifted the cover and on the tray they saw a little boiled cabbage and a small slice of bread. They looked at each other, not knowing what to say next. Certainly this woman was not living in luxury while others went hungry! She knew what they were thinking, and said with a smile that there seemed to be scarcely enough for four. And then she invited them to come and drink coffee with her that evening. The men whispered to each other, "It must be Mathilde Wrede!" and they went away and left her to her frugal lunch.
During all that terrible time of hatred, Mathilda continued to put her faith in the power of love. She was cheered to find even in those dark days that others had caught the infection of her generous loving spirit. She talked with a man whom she had formerly known as a prisoner. His mother had been killed during the fighting.
"If another civil war were to break out," Miss Wrede asked him, "would you fight again?"
"No," he answered firmly.
"You don't think you would remember your mother's death and fee you must get your revenge?"
"No," he said again. "That would not help my mother or give her back to me. The man whom you taught to value life cannot kill."
"Bring them in, please."
The men entered--shabby, thin, their faces showing signs of terrible strain.
"What do you want of me?" she asked, after greeting them.
"We are political prisoners who have just been released. We bring you a petition from over seven hundred of our friends who are still in prison. They implored you to come back to your work in prisons."
But I am old now and I have had many illnesses. I have no strength left."
You are needed so terribly!" they begged. "Perhaps doing the work you love will make you young again."
When they had left her she thought with mixed feelings over what they had said. It was good to know that they still wanted her! But she felt weak and very tired. Was she never to have any rest? She remembered the dream she had had in her girlhood. She heard again the words the convict in that dream had spoken: "Thousands of poor bound souls sigh for life and peace. Speak to them of Jesus while yet you have time." While she was still thinking, an urgent letter was brought to her from the new Chief of Prisons at Helsingfors. He, too, begged her to take up her work again. "God is calling me to this work," she thought. "He will give me strength." She wrote to the Commissioner for Prisons asking him to notify all warders that Mathilda Wrede would be visiting the prisons again.
In the courtyard of Kakola prison three hundred prisoners were waiting for her. When her spare upright figure came in sight they burst into a song of welcome.
"I thank you, dear friends, with all my heart," she said. "No one, I think, ever came up Kakola Hill--that Way of Sorrows--with such thankfulness as I came to-day. As long as my strength endures I will work for you and yours."
They brought out a chair and she sat and talked to them in her old cheerful way, until she could speak no longer. One man came forward with a bunch of red roses which he presented in the name of all the prisoners. Two men lifted her chair in their strong arms. Shoulder-high they carried her into the prison.