Waisenamt (Orphans Office), an extraordinarily useful and important mutual aid church institution developed by the Mennonites in Russia for the administration of the estates of orphans, later used for a similar service to widows and elderly people or anyone needing help in the investment, care, and administration of funds. In effect the Waisenamt became a trust institution and almost a bank, rendering many services that modern trust companies and commercial banks perform on a business basis. The Waisenamt was actually a committee of usually two or three men called "Waisenmänner" (the chairman being called "Waisenältester," i.e., Orphan Elder), competent and experienced in handling financial matters, who served without pay (later the chairman was paid) in the spirit of Christian brotherly love. Since the capital accumulated during the operations of the trust committee soon attained considerable size and often had to be held for a period of years, it became necessary to invest the trust funds to secure returns in the form of interest; hence an investment business naturally developed. Persons seeking credit likewise naturally turned to the Waisenamt for loans. Inevitably a type of banking business developed.
Such an institution could develop only in a group or society set up in relative isolation from the surrounding culture and legally given a considerable degree of autonomy, as was the case in the Mennonite settlements established in Russia in 1789 f. and 1803 f. In a sense the Waisenamt was a necessity, particularly in the absence of adequate Russian governmental provisions in this field, as well as because of the wide variation between local Russian customs relating to inheritance and those brought along from West Prussia. A similar situation prevailed in Manitoba and Paraguay when immigrants from Russia reached these lands, although in Manitoba the legal arrangements were much more adequate. In Manitoba also, as the state came more and more to regulate private financial and lending institutions, compulsory regulation and finally incorporation was forced upon several of the Waisenamt organizations there. With the exception of this one region the Mennonite Waisenamt institution developed autonomously in the 19th century and remained so to the Revolution in Russia. It is still completely free in Mexico and Paraguay to operate autonomously in accord with the long-established customs and experience of the group. Numbers of men have rendered outstanding service to their people through their Waisenamt service, particularly in Russia and Manitoba. Fortunately a brief history and description of the Waisenamt as it developed in Russia is available from the pen of Johann Riediger, the last Orphan Elder of the Halbstadt district in the Molotschna settlement of South Russia, written in 1930 at Mölln, Germany, where Riediger was a refugee at the time. It was published as the introduction to a booklet called Teilungsordnung der in Süd-Russland angesiedelten Mennoniten, auf Anregung der mennonitischen Flüchtlinge in Deutschland neu herausgegeben (Karlsruhe, 1930). This account is presented in translation in the immediately following paragraphs.
"Since there is a danger that children will squander what the parents have saved through their labor, and also that inherited property may be administered poorly or in bad faith by relatives or friends, it becomes necessary to protect the interests of minor heirs, both in their personal life and in their finances, by means of special regulations. This was clearly recognized by the Mennonites in Russia when in 1807 they wrote down in 17 points the traditional practices regarding rights of inheritance and division of estates that they had brought along from the old homeland. This was simply the customary practice, quite simple practical rules that had proved their value in the course of the years. In 1814 these inheritance regulations (Teilungsordnung) were enlarged to 27 points. Later they were repeatedly revised in 1824, 1826, 1843, 1850; in 1894 the regulations were thoroughly reviewed and published in a small booklet in German and Russian by the publishing firm of H. A. Ediger in Berdyansk [called Teilungsordnung]."
"In 1904 all the village communes of the Halbstadt district decided to reorganize the management of Waisenamt funds by establishing the Halbstadt Orphans Fund (Waisenkasse). The writer had had sufficient experience in the management of the previous system to learn its shortcomings and to help correct them in the new plan. He can highly recommend the new system in the form in which it existed in Halbstadt from that day on to the end."
"The Orphan Elders [managers] met weekly in Halbstadt to execute the necessary deposits and withdrawals of all trust monies. It should be inserted here that one should not give one man [elder] the responsibility for more than 8-10 villages (200-50 families) and that in any case a sort of Orphans Court should be established for the arbitration of disputes. Each village had its own record book in the Orphans Fund, in which all transactions were entered. For each ward of the trust one page was reserved. . . . The investment capital for each ward was paid into the Fund by his guardian and loaned out at 6 per cent, of which 5 per cent was credited annually to the ward, one per cent being used for overhead and to build up a reserve. The non-investment capital of a ward was only deposited but could be loaned out under certain conditions by the administrator of the Fund. The Orphan Elder received an annual allowance. The management costs were covered by a one-half per cent levy on participating capital deposits."
"The funds of aged widows and widowers, and in fact of all persons who were unable to manage their affairs themselves, were administered under the same terms. The money deposited for investment could be loaned out only in the Halbstadt district and for a maximum period of five years. Each borrower had to furnish two bondsmen whose signatures were to be attested by the elder for the village, whereby the village assumed a certain degree of guarantee for the loaned money of the ward. Guardians and caretakers [curators] had to be approved by the Waisenant administration after their elections."
The published Teilungsordnung of 1930 contained two parts: (I) Teilungs-Ordnung der Molotschnaer Mennoniten-Gemeinde and deren Tochter-Kolonien in 25 paragraphs, and (II) Teilungs-Ordnung der Chortitzaer Mennoniten-Gemeinden und deren Tochterkolonien in 61 paragraphs, a total of 64 pages. Authentic printed copies of the original booklets were brought along from Russia and edited for publication by Benjamin H. Unruh. The publication was financed by the Mennonite Central Committee, and several hundred copies were sent with the refugees to Brazil and Paraguay, where apparently each Mennonite colony set up a Waisenamt.
The Bergthal Waisenamt in Russia was used as the institution to finance the emigration of that group to Manitoba, although numbers of families also secured private loans. This Waisenamt had about $100,000 of capital at the time (1874). A flat levy of 25 per cent was made on all deposits to aid the penniless among the emigrants. This entire Waisenamt was simply transferred to Manitoba where it kept on functioning, as was the case with all the separate immigrant groups. After the division of the Bergthal church in Manitoba into three bodies, there were five Waisenamt institutions at the same time in Manitoba: (1) Old Colony and the Fürstenland group; (2) Kleine Gemeinde; (3) Chortitz of the Bergthal group in the East Reserve; (4) Bergthal of the liberal Bergthal group in the West Reserve; and (5) Sommerfeld of the conservative Bergthal group in the West Reserve.
"In Russia-Manitoba Waisenamt was not only a trust company, but an institution whose rules represented a body of laws regulating the transfer of property from one generation to another. Finally it served as a savings bank and finance institution. Historically the principles under which it operated reflected ancient concepts of farm property and inheritance which once had been widespread among the German colonists in Eastern Europe" (Francis, Utopia, p. 125, where the basic principles of inheritance and the operating regulations are described in detail).
The Waisenamt regulations were not only social rules but were grounded in Bible passages and hence had religious sanctions. The church elder had to sign every inheritance transfer contract. Even though the regulations in Manitoba had to be approved by the provincial government (they were always approved because not considered legally binding or in conflict with Manitoba law), they were still considered by the people as church regulations.
The Waisenamts in Manitoba served the people well until the time of the depression in the 1920's. The two which had been incorporated in Manitoba under government pressure went bankrupt, since borrowers were unable to repay loans, and depositors therefore could not secure repayments. To date the two bankrupt institutions have not been fully reorganized and are therefore not functioning. However there are still (1958) six Canadian Waisenamts in existence, four in Manitoba (three in the West Reserve and one in the East Reserve) and at least two in Saskatchewan where they are simply called "Mennonite Waisenamt." In Manitoba the four are called Sommerfelder, Bergthaler, Rosengart, and Chortitz.
The Waisenamts established in the Mennonite settlements in Mexico and Paraguay, 1922-30, have functioned effectively, although in Paraguay the cooperatives have taken over much of the function of providing credit to borrowers.
The basic decree-law (Privilegium) governing the settlement of Mennonites in Paraguay, adopted in 1927, contains in Article Two the following provision: "To administer the inheritances and especially the properties of widows and orphans by means of their special system of trust committees known as Waisenamt and in accordance with the particular rules of the community without any kind of restriction." Article Six specifies that there must be a report to the government by "the recognized authorities of the colonists" of "the names, authorities, and regulations of the trust committees (Waisenamt) in order that these may be approved by Congress."
Francis, E. K. In Search of Utopia. Altona, 1955. 125-30.
Francis, E. K. "Mennonite Institutions in Early Manitoba, A Study of Their Origins." Agricultural History XXII (1948): 147 f., 150.
Fretz, J. W. Mennonite Colonization in Mexico. Akron, 1945: 28 f.
Fretz, J. W. Pilgrims in Paraguay. Scottdale, 1953: 105, 230.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 870-872. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Bender, Harold S. "Waisenamt." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 22 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/W231.html.
APA style: Bender, Harold S. (1959). Waisenamt. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 22 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/W231.html.