Wrede, Mathilda (1864–1928)

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Wrede, Mathilda (1864–1928)

Finnish prison reformer . Born on March 8, 1864, in Vaasa, Finland; died on December 25, 1928, in Finland; daughter of Baron Carl Gustav Wrede (governor of Finland's Vaasa district) and Baroness Eleonora Glansenstjerna; educated by tutors; attended a boarding school in Fredrikshamn (Hamina); spent one year in a Finnish folk school.

Born in 1864 in Vaasa, Finland, prison reformer and peace activist Mathilda Wrede was the daughter of the governor of Vaasa. One of nine children, she was raised by her father and her older sister Helena Wrede after her mother's death in 1875. As a child, she developed the extraordinary sympathy for others which would drive her career. At a young age she developed a strong affection for animals, horses in particular, which lasted throughout her life. While still a girl she began to feel a great sympathy with and pity for prisoners whom she would encounter working on her father's estate—such prison labor being customary at that time. Despite the discouragement of her father and tutors, she began to interact with the prisoners, talking to them and showing them kindness. While some worried about what they felt to be her naive approach to hardened convicts, Mathilda showed a great deal of strength and respect for these men that was very unusual in her day. One of the first such instances occurred in her father's home where a prisoner had been sent to fix a door knob. Mathilda talked to this man, eventually sharing with him a deep religious experience she had recently had. The man showed interest in her conversation and had a friendly disposition, securing her lifelong belief that every person had some good in them, but that bad circumstances led them to crime.

She re-echoed this sentiment at the International Penal Conference in Petrograd, Russia, in 1890. A distinguished scholar had spoken regarding the incorrigibility of certain criminals and the uselessness of spending public money on reform efforts. Not a native speaker of the language nor an established scholar in the area, Mathilda courageously rose to speak of her personal experiences and deny the statement. She was applauded enthusiastically for contending that reform efforts should first concentrate on the spiritual being of the individuals involved, looking to God rather than specific laws and systems to transform the incorrigible. She was invited to a dinner with the tsar, an invitation she refused believing that the participation in luxury would threaten the trust she had earned from the prisoners that she was so dedicated to helping.

The Penal Conference was the beginning of Wrede's long career dedicated to improving Finnish prisons and reforming criminals through religious instruction. At first concentrating her efforts only on her father's estate, she worked closely with individual prisoners, earning their respect by respecting them. When they were released, Wrede helped them re-establish themselves as free men; each man who returned to an honest life reaffirmed her beliefs and inspired her to continue her efforts with other convicts. Wrede's family wealth and her social status allowed her to travel across Finland, meeting alone with thousands of incarcerated men. In 1886, her father gave her a farm for her own use, which she immediately put to use as a shelter and church for freed convicts.

Gradually Wrede gave up the luxuries she had been accustomed to, spending her considerable wealth not for her own comfort but on caring for her charges and their families; she is said to have owned only two dresses. In 1912 she gave an interview to a newspaper criticizing the state prison system for neglecting the physical wellbeing of its convicts. This sort of direct public criticism brought her the ire of prison officials, who began to deny Wrede private interviews with prisoners, and refused to let her visit them alone. She persisted in contacting freed prisoners, and as she became well respected in Finland for her charitable efforts, prison officials eventually relented.

During World War I, Wrede turned her efforts to helping Finnish soldiers, volunteering as a relief worker for their families. She refused to take sides in the Finnish War of Liberation of 1917, in which the Finnish tried to overthrow Russian rule, instead aiding the soldiers of both sides of the conflict. Her experiences of war led Wrede to dedicate herself to peace activism in Finland and abroad. During the Russian Civil War of 1917–18, she opened her home to the many refugees fleeing Russia who came to Finland. In 1919, she met with other peace activists in the Netherlands, where they formed the Fellowship of Reconciliation, dedicated to promoting international peace. Wrede's work for the Fellowship was largely concentrated on negotiating between Russia and Finland, trying to find an acceptable settlement to the issue of control of Finland. She was also active in protecting freedom of conscience and the rights of religious minorities in Finland. She was particularly successful in helping a group of Greek Orthodox priests living in Finland who were being forced to neglect the Orthodox calendar of holy days. Wrede appealed their case to the Finnish government and even to the League of Nations, eventually winning for them the right to worship by their own calendar.

In addition to peace, minority rights, and prison reform, Wrede was dedicated to helping animals as a member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Through all these efforts Mathilda Wrede became celebrated as a national heroine; on her 60th birthday she was given a house by a group representing the women of Finland, called the House of Honor. Wrede died there after a long illness at age 64, in 1928.


Kenworthy, Leonard S. Twelve Citizens of the World. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1953.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California