An abbess (Latin abbatissa, feminine form of abbas, abbot) is the female superior, or mother superior, of an abbey of nuns.
In the Catholic Church (both the Latin Rite and Eastern Catholic), Eastern Orthodox, Coptic and Anglican abbeys, the mode of election, position, rights, and authority of an abbess correspond generally with those of an abbot. The office is elective, the choice being by the secret votes of the nuns belonging to the community. Like an abbot, an abbess is solemnly admitted to her office by formal blessing, conferred by the bishop in whose territory the monastery is located, or by an abbot or another bishop with appropriate permission. Unlike the abbot, the abbess receives only the ring and a copy of the rule of the order. She does not receive a mitre nor is given a crosier as part of the ceremony; however, by ancient tradition, she may carry a crosier when leading her community. The abbess also traditionally adds a pectoral cross to her habit as a symbol of office.
Abbesses are, like abbots, major superiors according to canon law. They receive the vows of the nuns of the abbey and have full authority in its administration. As they do not receive Holy Orders in the Catholic, Orthodox and Oriental Churches they do not possess certain powers conferred upon abbots, nor do they exercise authority over territories outside of their monastery.
Historically, in some Celtic monasteries abbesses presided over joint-houses of monks and nuns, the most famous example being Saint Brigid of Kildare's leadership in the founding of the monastery at Kildare in Ireland. This custom accompanied Celtic monastic missions to France, Spain, and even to Rome itself. In 1115, Robert, the founder of Fontevraud Abbey near Chinon and Saumur, France, committed the government of the whole order, men as well as women, to a female superior.
In Lutheran churches the title of abbess (Äbtissin) has in some cases (e.g. Itzehoe) survived to designate the heads of abbeys which since the Protestant Reformation have continued as Stifte. These are collegiate foundations, which provide a home and an income for unmarried ladies, generally of noble birth, called canonesses (Kanonissinen) or more usually Stiftsdamen. The office of abbess is of considerable social dignity, and in the past, was sometimes filled by princesses of the reigning houses. Until the dissolution of Holy Roman Empire and mediatization of smaller imperial fiefs by Napoleon, the evangelical Abbess of Quedlinburg was also per officio the head of that reichsunmittelbar state. The last such ruling abbess was Sofia Albertina, Princess of Sweden.
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