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Who is an Abbess and What Does She Do?


Who is an Abbess and What Does She Do?

An abbess is a woman who is the head of a convent of nuns in the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, Coptic Church or Anglican Church. She is elected by the nuns of her community and confirmed by the Holy See or the appropriate ecclesiastical authority. She has the same rights and responsibilities as an abbot, the male equivalent of an abbess.

The Role of an Abbess

An abbess is responsible for the spiritual and temporal welfare of her nuns. She leads them in prayer, guides them in their religious life, and oversees their work and education. She also manages the finances, property, and administration of the convent. She has the authority to admit new members, impose discipline, and grant dispensations. She represents her community to the outside world and maintains relations with other religious communities and the local church.

An abbess is also a symbol of the dignity and authority of women in the church. She wears a ring, a crosier, and a pectoral cross as signs of her office. She does not wear a mitre or use choir dress, as she is not ordained. She is addressed as “Mother” or “Reverend Mother” by her nuns and others.

The Requirements for an Abbess


The Role of an Abbess

To become an abbess, a woman must be at least 40 years old and have been a nun for 10 years. She must also be of legitimate birth, a virgin, free from any public penance, not a widow, and not blind or deaf. These requirements may be waived by the Holy See in some cases.

An abbess serves for life, unless she resigns or is removed by the Holy See for grave reasons. She may also retire due to old age or ill health.

Some Famous Abbesses


The Requirements for an Abbess

Throughout history, there have been many notable abbesses who have made significant contributions to the church and society. Some examples are:

  • Hilda of Whitby (614-680), an English abbess who founded several monasteries and hosted the Synod of Whitby, which resolved the dispute over the date of Easter.
  • Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), a German abbess who was a visionary, mystic, composer, writer, scientist, and reformer.
  • Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582), a Spanish abbess who reformed the Carmelite order and wrote influential works on spirituality and mysticism.
  • Catherine McAuley (1778-1841), an Irish abbess who founded the Sisters of Mercy, a religious congregation that serves the poor and sick.
  • Mother Teresa (1910-1997), an Albanian-Indian abbess who founded the Missionaries of Charity, a religious order that cares for the poorest of the poor around the world.

The History of Abbesses


Some Famous Abbesses

The term abbess comes from the Latin word abbatissa, which is derived from abbas, meaning father. The first historical record of the name is on a Roman inscription dated around 514 CE.

Abbesses have played an important role in the history of Christianity, especially in the early and medieval periods. They founded and led many monasteries, schools, hospitals, and other institutions that preserved and spread the faith and culture. They also influenced theology, art, music, literature, and politics. Some abbesses even ruled over double monasteries of monks and nuns and enjoyed various privileges and honors.

Some of the most famous abbesses in history include:

  • Brigid of Kildare (c. 451-525), an Irish abbess who founded several monasteries and was renowned for her miracles and charity.
  • Scholastica (c. 480-543), an Italian abbess who was the twin sister of St. Benedict and the first Benedictine nun.
  • Radegund (c. 520-587), a Frankish abbess who was a former queen and founded the monastery of Sainte-Croix in Poitiers.
  • Bertilla (c. 620-705), a French abbess who was a disciple of St. Bathildis and founded the monastery of Chelles.
  • Leoba (c. 710-782), an English abbess who was a disciple of St. Boniface and founded several monasteries in Germany.
  • Eufemia Szaniawska (c. 1725-1771), a Polish abbess who was the last abbess of the Benedictine Monastery in Nieśwież and wielded considerable political power.
  • Johanna van Doorselaer de ten Ryen (died 1796), a Flemish abbess who was the last abbess of Waasmunster Roosenberg Abbey and defended her nuns during the French Revolution.
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