ABBESS (Lat. abbatissa, fem. form of abbas, abbot),
the female superior of an abbey or convent of nuns. The
mode of election, position, rights and authority of an abbess
correspond generally with those of an abbot (q.v.). The
office is elective, the choice being by the secret votes of the
sisters from their own body. The abbess is solemnly admitted
to her office by episcopal benediction, together with the
conferring of a staff and pectoral cross, and holds for life,
though liable to be deprived for misconduct. The council of
Trent fixed the qualifying age at forty, with eight years of
profession. Abbesses have a right to demand absolute obedience
of their nuns, over whom they exercise discipline, extending
even to the power of expulsion, subject, however, to the
bishop. As a female an abbess is incapable of performing the
spiritual functions of the priesthood belonging to an abbot.
She cannot ordain, confer the veil, nor excommunicate. In
England abbesses attended ecclesiastical councils, e.g. that
of Becanfield in 694, where they signed before the presbyters.
By Celtic usage abbesses presided over joint-houses of monks and
nuns. This custom accompanied Celtic monastic missions to France
and Spain, and even to Rome itself. At a later period, A.D.
1115, Robert, the founder of Fontevraud, committed the government
of the whole order, men as well as women, to a female superior.
In the German Evangelical church the title of abbess (Aebtissin)
has in some cases--e.g. Itzehoe--survived to designate the
heads of abbeys which since the Reformation have continued as
Stifte, i.e. collegiate foundations, which provide a home
and an income for unmarried ladies, generally of noble birth,
called canonesses (Kanonissinen) or more usually Stiftsdamen.
This office of abbess is of considerable social dignity, and
is sometimes filled by princesses of the reigning houses.
Source: An unnamed encyclopedia from a project that puts out-of-copyright texts into the public domain.
This is from a *very* old source, and reflects the thinking of the turn of the last century. -- BryceHarrington