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The female superior in spirituals and temporals of a community of twelve or more nuns. With a few necessary exceptions, the position of an Abbess in her convent corresponds generally with that of an Abbot in his monastery. The title was originally the distinctive appellation of Benedictine superiors, but in the course of time it came to be applied also to the conventual superior in other orders, especially to these of the Second Order of St. Francis (Poor Clares) and to these of certain colleges of canonesses.

Historical origin

Monastic communities for women had sprung up in the East at a very early period. After their introduction into Europe, towards the close of the fourth century, they began to flourish also in the West, particularly in Gaul, where tradition ascribes the foundation of many religious houses to St. Martin of Tours. Cassian the great organizer of monachism in Gaul, founded a famous convent at Marseilles, at the beginning of the fifth century, and from this convent at a later period, St. Caesarius (d. 542) called his sister Caesaria, and placed her over a religious house which he was then founding at Arles. St. Benedict is also said to have founded a community of virgins consecrated to God, and to have placed it under the direction of his sister St. Scholastica, but whether or not the great Patriarch established a nunnery, it is certain that in a short time he was looked upon as a guide and father to the many convents already existing. His rule was almost universally adopted by them, and with it the title Abbess came into general use to designate the superior of a convent of nuns. Before this time the title Mater Monasterii, Mater Monacharum, and Praeposisa were more common. The name Abbess appears for the first time in a sepulchral inscription of the year 514, found in 1901 on the site of an ancient convent of virgines sacræ which stood in Rome near the Basilica of St. Agnes extra Muros. The inscription commemorates the Abbess Serena who presided over this convent up to the time of her death at the age of eighty-five years: "Hic requieescit in pace, Serena Abbatissa S. V. quae vixzit annos P. M. LXXXV."

Mode of election

The office of an Abbess is elective, the choice being by the secret suffrages of the sister. By the common law of the Church, all the nuns of a community, professed for the choir, and free from censures, are entitled to vote; but by particular law some constitutions extend the right of an active voice only to those who have been professed for a certain number of years. Lay sisters are excluded by the constitutions of most orders, but in communities where they have the right to vote their privilege is to be respected. In nonexempt monasteries the election is presided over by the ordinary of the diocese or his vicar; in exempt houses, under the immediate jurisdiction of the Holy See, the Bishop likewise presides, but only as the delegate of the Pope. In those under the jurisdiction of a regular prelate the nuns are obliged to inform the diocesan of the day and time of election, so that if he wish, he or his representative may be present. The Bishop and the regular prelate preside jointly, but in no instance have they a vote, not even a casting vote. And the Council of Trent prescribes, further, that "he who preside at the election, whether it be the Bishop or other superior, shall not enter the enclosure of the monastery, but shall listen to or receive the vote of each at the grille." (Conc. Trid., Sess. XXV, De regular, et monial., Cap. vii.) The voting must be strictly secret, and if secrecy be not observed (whether through ignorance of the law or not), the election is null and void. A simple majority of votes for one candidate is sufficient for a valid election, unless the constitutions of an order require more than the bare majority. The result is to be proclaimed at once, by announcing the number of votes cast for each nun, so that in case of a dispute an immediate opportunity may be afforded for checking the vote. In case no candidate should receive the required number of votes, the Bishop or the regular prelate orders a new election, and for the time appoints a superior. If the community again fails to agree upon any candidate, the Bishop or other superior can nominate the one whom he judges to be the most worthy and depute her as Abbess. The newly appointed Abbess enters upon the duties of her office immediately after confirmation, which is obtained for non-exempt convents from the diocesan, and for exempt houses either from the regular prelate, if they be under his jurisdiction, or from the Holy See directly. (Ferraris, Prompta Bibliotheca; Abbatisa.-Cf. Taunton, The Law of the Church.)


Touching the age at which a nun becomes eligible for the office, the discipline of the Church has varied at different times. Pope Leo I prescribed forty years. St. Gregory the Great insisted that the Abbesses chosen by the communities should be at least sixty — women to whom years had given dignity, discretion, and the power to withstand temptation. He very strongly prohibited the appointment of young women as Abbesses (Ep. 55 ch. xi). Popes Innocent IV and Boniface VIII, on the other hand, were both content with thirty years. According to the present legislation, which is that of the Council of Trent, no nun "can be elected as Abbess unless she has completed the fortieth year of her age, and the eighth year of her religious profession. "But should no one be found in any convent with these qualifications, one may be elected out of another convent of the same order. But if the superior who presides over the election shall deem even this an inconvenience, there may be chosen, with the consent of the Bishop or other superior, one from amongst those in the same convent who are beyond their thirtieth year, and have since their profession passed at least five of those years in an upright manner. . . In other particulars, the constitution of each order or convent shall be observed." (Conc. Trid., Sess, xxv, De regular. et monial., Cap. vii.) By various decision of the Sacred Congregation of the Council and of the Sacred Congregation of Bishops and Regulars, it is forbidden, without a dispensation from the Holy See, to elect a nun of illegitimate birth; one not of virginal integrity of body; or one who has had to undergo a public penance (unless it were only salutary); a widow; a blind or deaf nun; or one of three sisters alive at the same time in the same convent. No nun is permitted to vote for herself. (Ferraris, Prompta Bibliotheea; Abbatissa.-Taunton, op, cit.) Abbesses are generally elected for life. In Italy, however, and the adjacent islands, by the Bull of Gregory XIII. "Exposcit debitum" (1 January, 1583), they are elected for three years only, and then must vacate the office for a period of three years, during which time they cannot act even as vicars.

Rite of benediction

Abbesses elected for life can be solemnly blessed according to the rite prescribed in the Pontificale Romanum. This benediction (also called ordination or consecration) they must seek, under pain of deprivation, within a year of their election, from the Bishop of the diocese. The ceremony, which takes place during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, can be performed on any day of the week. No mention is made in the Pontificale of a conferring of the staff, customary in many places at the installation of an Abbess, but the rite is prescribed in many monastic rituals, and as a rule the Abbess, like the Abbot, bears the crosier as a symbol of her office and of her rank; she has also a right to the ring. The induction of an Abbess into office early assumed a liturgical character. St. Redegundis, in one of her letters, speaks of it, and informs us that Agnes, the Abbess of Sainte-Croix, before entering on her charge, received the solemn Rite of Benediction from St. Germain, the Bishop of Paris. Since the time of St. Gregory the Great, the blessing was reserved to the bishop of the diocese. At present some Abbesses are privileged to receive it from certain regular prelates.

Authority of the abbess

An Abbess can exercise supreme domestic authority (potestas dominativa) over her monastery and all its dependencies, but as a female, she is debarred from exercising any power of spiritual jurisdiction, such as belongs to an abbot. She is empowered therefore to administer the temporal possessions of the convent; to issue commands to her nuns "in virtue of holy obedience", thus binding them in conscience, provided the obedience she demands be in accordance with the rule and statutes of the order; and to prescribe and ordain whatever may be necessary for the maintenance of discipline in the house, or conducive to the proper observance of the rule, and the preservation of peace and order in the community. She can also irritate directly, the vows of her professed sisters, and indirectly, those of the novices, but she cannot commute those vows, nor dispense from them. Neither can she dispense her subjects from any regular and ecclesiastical observances, without the leave of her prelate, though she can, in particular instance, declare that a certain precept ceases to bind. She cannot publicly bless her nuns, as a priest or a prelate blesses, but she can bless them in the way that a mother blesses her children. She is not permitted to preach, though she may in chapter, exhort her nuns by conferences. An Abbess has, morever, a certain power of coercion, which authorizes her to impose punishments of a lighter nature, in harmony with the provisions of the rule, but in no instance has she a right to inflict the graver ecclesiastical penalties, such as censures. By the decree "Quemadmodum", 17 December, 1890, of Leo XIII, abbesses and other superiors are absolutely inhibited "from endeavouring, directly or indirectly, by command, counsel, fear, threats, or blandishments, to induce their subjects to make to them the secret manifestations of conscience in whatsoever manner or under what name soever." The same decree declares that permission or prohibition as to Holy Communion "belongs solely to the ordinary or extraordinary confessor, the superiors having no right whatever to interfere in the matter, save only the case in which any one of their subjects had given scandal to the community since. . . her last confession, or had been guilty of some grievous public fault, and this only until the guilty one had once more received the Sacrament of Penance." With regard to the administration of monastic property it must be noted that in affairs of greater moment an Abbess is always more or less dependent on the Ordinary, if subject to him, or on the regular prelate if her abbey is exempt. By the Constitution "Inscrutabili," 5 February, 1622, of Gregory XV, all Abbesses, exempt as well as non-exempt, are furthermore obliged to present an annual statement of their temporalities to the bishop of the diocese.

In medieval times the Abbesses of the larger and more important houses were not uncommonly women of great power and distinction, whose authority and influence rivalled, at times, that of the most venerate bishops and abbots. In Saxon England,

they had often the retinue and state of princesses, especially when they came of royal blood. They treated with kings, bishops, and the greatest lords on terms of perfect equality;. . . they were present at all great religious and national solemnities, at the dedication of churches, and even, like the queens, took part in the deliberation of the national assemblies, and affixed their signatures to the charters therein granted. (Montalembert, "The Monks of the West," Bk. XV.)

They appeared also at Church councils in the midst of the bishops and abbots and priests, as did the Abbess Hilda at the Synod of Whitby in 664, and the Abbess Elfleda, who succeeded her, at that of the River Nith in 705. Five Abbesses were present at the Council of Becanfield in 694, where they signed the decrees before the presbyters. At a later time the Abbess

took titles from churches impropriated to her house, presented the secular vicars to serve the parochial churches, and had all the privileges of a landlord over the temporal estates attached to her abbey. The Abbess of Shaftesbury, for instance, at one time, found seven knights' fees for the King's service and held manor courts, Wilton, Barking, and Nunnaminster, as well as Shaftesbury, 'held of the king by an entire barony,' and by right of this tenure had, for a period, the privilege of being summoned to Parliament. (Gasquet, "English Monastic Life," 39.)

In Germany the Abbesses of Quedimburg, Gandersheim, Lindau, Buchau, Obermünster, etc., all ranked among the independent princes of the Empire, and as such sat and voted in the Diet as members of the Rhenish bench of bishops. They lived in princely state with a court of their own, ruled their extensive conventual estates like temporal lords, and recognized no ecclesiastic superior except the Pope. After the Reformation, their Protestant successors continued to enjoy the same imperial privileges up to comparatively recent times.

In France, Italy, and Spain, the female superiors of the great monastic houses were likewise very powerful. But the external splendour and glory of medieval days have now departed from all.

Confession to the abbess

Abbesses have no spiritual jurisdiction, and can exercise no authority that is in any way connected with the power of the keys or of orders. During the Middle Ages, however, attempts were not infrequently made to usurp this spiritual power of the priesthood, and we read of Abbesses who besides being guilty of many minor encroachments on the functions of the sacerdotal office, presumed to interfere even in the administration of the sacrament of penance and confessed their nuns. Thus, in the Capitularies of Charlemagne, mention is made of "certain Abbesses, who contrary to the established discipline of the Church of God, presume to bless the people, impose their hands on them, make the sign of the cross on the foreheads of men, and confer the veil on virgins, employing during that ceremony the blessing reserved exclusively to the priest," all of which practice the bishops are urged to forbid absolutely in their respective dioceses. (Thomassin, "Vetus et Nova Ecclesae Disciplina," pars I, lib. II, xii, no. 17.) The "Monastieum Cisterciense" records the stern inhibition which Innocent III, in 1220, placed upon Cistercian Abbesses of Burgos and Palencia in Spain, "who blessed their religious, heard the confession of their sins, and when reading the Gospel, presumed publicly to preach." (Thomassin, op. cit., pars I, lib. III. xlix, no. 4.) The Pope characterized the intrusion of these women as a thing "unheard of, most indecorous, and highly preposterous." Dom Martene, the Benedictine savant, in his work "De Antiquis Ecclesiae Ritibus," speaks of other Abbesses who likewish confessed their nuns, and adds, not without a touch of humour, that "these Abbesses had evidently overrated their spiritual powers a trifle." And as late as 1658, the Sacred Congregation of Rites categorically condemned the acts of the Abbess of Fontevrault in France, who of her own authority, obliged the monks and nuns of her obedience to recite offices, say Masses, and observe rites and ceremonies which had never been sanctioned or approved of by Rome. (Analecta Juris Pontificii, VII, col. 348.) In this connection it must, however, be observed, that when the older monastic rules prescribe confession to the superior, they do not refer to sacramental confession, but to the "chapter of faults" or the culpa, at which the religious accuse themselves of ordinary external fault patent to all, and of minor infractions of the rule. This "confession" may be made either privately to the superior or publicly in the chapter-house; no absolution is given and the penance assigned is merely disciplinary. The "chapter of faults" is a form of religious exercise still practised in all the monasteries of the ancient orders.

But reference must be made to certain exceptional cases, where Abbesses have been permitted, by Apostolical concession and privilege, it is alleged, to exercise a most extraordinary power of jurisdiction. Thus, the Abbess of the Cistercian Monastery of Santa Maria la Real de las Huelgas, near Burgos, in Spain, was, by the terms of her official protocol, a "noble lady, the superior, prelate, and lawful administratrix in spirituals and temporals of the said royal abbey, and of all the contents, churches, and hermitages of its filiation, of the villages and places under its jurisdiction, seigniory, and vassalage, in virtue of Bulls and Apostolical concessions, with plenary jurisdiction, privative, quasi-episopal, nullius diacesis." (Florez, "España sagada," XXVII, Madrid 1772, col. 578.) By the favour of the king, she was, moreover, invested with almost royal prerogatives, and exercised an unlimited secular authority over more than fifty villages. Like the Lord Bishops, she held her own courts, in civil and criminal cases, granted letters dismissorial for ordination, and issued licenses authorizing priests, within the limits of her abbatial jurisdiction, to hear confessions, to preach, and to engage in the cure of souls. She was privileged also to confirm Abbesses, to impose censures, and to convoke synods. ("España sagrada," XXVII, col. 581.) At a General Chapter of the Cistercians held in 1189, she was made Abbess General of the Order for the Kingdom of Leon and Castile, with the privilege of convoking annually a general chapter at Burgos. The Abbess of Las Huelgas retained her ancient prestige up to the time of the Council of Trent.

A power of jurisdiction almost equal to that of the Abbess of Las Huelgas was at one time exercised by the Cistercian Abbess of Converano in Italy. Among the many privileges enjoyed by this Abbess may be specially mentioned, that of appointing her own vicar-general through whom she governed her abbatial territory; that of selecting and approving confessors for the laity; and that of authorizing clerics to have the cure of souls in the churches under her jurisdiction. Every newly appointed Abbess of Converano was likewise entitled to receive the public "homage" of her clergy — the ceremony of which was sufficiently elaborate. On the appointed day, the clergy, in a body repaired to the abbey; at the great gate of her monastery, the Abbess, with mitre and crosier, sat enthroned under a canopy, and as each member of the clergy passed before her, he made his obeisance, and kissed her hand. The clergy, however, wished to do away with the distasteful practice, and, in 1709, appealed to Rome; the Sacred Congregation of Bishops and Regulars thereupon modified some of ceremonial details, but recognized the right of the Abbess to the homage. Finally, in 1750, the practice was wholly abolished, and the Abbess deprived of all her power of jurisdiction. (Cf. "Analecta Juris Pontificii," XXXVIII, col. 723: and Bizzari, "Collectanea," 322.) among other Abbesses said to have exercised like powers of jurisdiction, for a period at least, may be mentioned the Abbess of Fontevrault in France, and of Quedlinburg in Germany. (Ferraris, "Biblioth. Prompta; Abbatissa.")

Protestant abbesses of Germany

In some parts of Germany, notably in Hanover, Wurtemberg, Brunswick, and Schleswig-Holstein, a number of Protestant educational establishments, and certain Lutheran sisterhoods are directed by superiors who style themselves Abbesses even to the present day. All these establishments were, at one time, Catholic convents and monasteries, and the "Abbesses" now presiding over them, are, in every instance, the Protestant successors of a former line of Catholic Abbesses. The transformation into Protestant community houses and seminaries was effected, of course, during the religious revolution of the sixteenth century, when the nuns who remained loyal to the Catholic faith were driven from the cloister, and Lutheran sisterhoods put in possession of their abbeys. In many religious communities, Protestantism was forcibly imposed on the members, while in some few, particularly in North Germany, it was voluntarily embraced. But in all these houses, where the ancient monastic offices were continued the titles of the officials were likewise retained. And thus there have been, since the sixteenth century, both Catholic and Protestant Abbesses in Germany.

The Abbey of Quedinburg was one of the first to embrace the Reformation. Its last Catholic Abbess, Magdalena, Princess of Anhalt, died in 1514. As early as 1539, the Abbess Anna II of Stolberg, who had been elected to the office when she was scarcely thirteen years of age, introduced Lutheranism in all the houses under her jurisdiction. The choir service in the abbey church was abandoned, and the Catholic religion wholly abrogated. The monastic offices were reduced to four, but the ancient official titles retained. Thereafter the institution continued as a Lutheran sisterhood till the secularization of the abbey in 1803. The last two Abbesses were the Princess Anna Amelia (d. 1787), sister of Frederick the Great, and the Princess Sophia Albertina (d. 1829), daughter of King Adolphus Frederick of Sweden. In 1542, under the Abbess Clare of the house of Brunswick, the Sclamalkaldic League forcibly imposed Protestantism on the members of the ancient and venerable Benedictine Abbey of Gandersheim; but though the Lutheran intruders were driven out again in 1547 by Clare's father, Duke Henry the Younger, a loyal Catholic, Lutheranism was permanently introduced, a few years later, by Julius, Duke of Brunswick. Margaret, the last Catholic Abbess, died in 1589, and after that period Lutheran Abbesses were appointed to the foundation. These continued to enjoy the imperial privileges of their predecessors till 1802, when Gandersheim was incorporated with Brunswick.

Among the houses of minor importance still in existence, the Abbey of Drubeck may be specially noticed. At one time a Catholic convent, it fell into Protestant hands during the Reformation. In 1687, the Elector Frederick William I of Brandenburg granted the revenues of the house to the Counts of Stolberg, stipulating, however, that women of noble birth and professing the Evangelical faith, should always find a home in the convent, be adequately provided for, and live there under the government of an Abbess. The wish of the Elector is apparently still respected.

Secular abbess in Austria

In the Hradschin of Prague, there is a noted Catholic Imperial Institute, whose directress always bears the title Abbess. The institute, now the most exclusive and the best endowed of its kind in Austria, was founded in 1755 by the Empress Maria Theresa for impoverished noblewomen of ancient lineage. The Abbess is always an Austrian Archduchess, and must be at least eighteen years of age before she can assume the duties of her office. Her insignia are a pectoral cross, the ring, the staff, and a princely cornet. It was formerly an exclusive privilege of this Abbess to crown the Queen of Bohemia — a ceremony last performed in 1808, for the Empress Maria Louisa. Candidates for admission to the Institute must be twenty-nine years of age, of irreproachable morals and able to trace back their noble ancestry, paternal and maternal, for eight generations. They make no vows, but live in community and are obliged to assist twice daily at divine service in the Stifskirche, and must go to confession and receive Holy Communion four times a year on appointed days. They are all Hoffähig.

Number and distribution, by countries, of abbesses

The Abbesses of the Black Benedictines number at present 120. Of these there are 71 in Italy, 15 in Spain, 12 in Austro-Hungary, 11 in France (before the Associations Law), 4 in England, 3 in Belgium, 2 in Germany, and 2 in Switzerland. The Cistercians of all Observances have a total of 77 Abbesses. Of these 74 belong to the Cistercians of the Common Observance, who have most of their houses in Spain and in Italy. The Cistercians of the Strict Observance have 2 Abbesses in France and 1 in Germany. There are no Abbesses in the United States. In England the superior of the following houses are Abbesses: St. Mary's Abbey, Stanbrook, Worcester; St. Mary's Abbey, East Bergholt, Suffolk; St. Mary's Abbey, Oulton, Staffordshire; St. Scholastica's Abbey, Teignmouth, Devon; St. Bridget's Abbey of Syon, Chudleigh, Devon (Brigittine); St. Clare's Abbey, Darlington, Durham (Poor Clares). In Ireland: Convent of Poor Clares, Ballyjamesduff.


MONTALEMBERT, The Monks of the West (GASQUET'S ed., in 6 vols., New York, 1896), Bk. XV; GASQUET, English Monastic Life (London, 1808), viii; TAUSTON, The English Black Monks of St. Benedict (London, 1808), I, vi; TAUNTON, The Law of the Church (St. Louis, 1906), ECKENSTEIN, Women under Monasticism (London 1896), FERRAIS, Prompta Bibliotheca Canonica (Rome 1885); BIZZARRI, Collectanea S. C. Episc. et Reg. (Rome 1885); PETRA, Comment. ad Constitut. Apostolicas (Rome, 1705); THOMASSINI, Vetus et Nova Ecclesia Disciplina (Mainz, 1787); FAGNANI, Jus Conon., s. Comment. in Decret, (Cologne, 1704); TAMBURINI, De jure et privilegiis abbat. pralat., abbatiss., et monial (Cologne, 1691); LAURAIN, De Vinterrention des laiques, des diacres et des abbesses dans Vadministration de lapcnitence (Paris, 1897); SAGULLER, Lehrbuch des katholischen Kirchenrechts (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1904).

About this page

APA citation. Oestereich, T. (1907). Abbess. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Oestereich, Thomas. "Abbess." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Isabel T. Montoya.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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