The superior of an abbey or convent of nuns. The abbess has the same rights and authority over her nuns that the abbots regular have over their monks. The sex, indeed, does not allow her to perform the spiritual functions annexed to the priesthood, wherewith the abbot is usually invested; but there are instances of some abbesses who have a right, or rather a privilege, to commission a priest to act for them. They have even a kind of Episcopal jurisdiction, as well as some abbots who are exempted from the visitation of their diocesan.
The chief ruler of a monastery or abbey. At first they were lay-men, and subject to the bishop and ordinary pastors. Their monasteries being remote from cities, and built in the farthest solitudes, they had no share in ecclesiastical affairs; but, there being among them several persons of learning, they were called out of their deserts by the bishops, and fixed in the suburbs of the cities; and at length in the cities themselves. From that time they degenerated, and, learning to be ambitious, aspired to be independent of the bishops, which occasioned some severe laws to be made against them. At length whoever, the abbots carried their point, and obtained the title of lord, with other badges of the episcopate, particularly the mitre. Hence arose new distinctions among them. Those were termed mitred abbots who were privileged to wear the mitre, and exercise episcopal authority within their respective precincts, being exempted from the jurisdiction of the bishop. Others were called crosiered abbots, from their bearing the crosier, or pastoral staff. Others were styled aecumenical or universal abbots, in imitation of the patriarch of Constantinople, while others were termed cardinal abbots, from their superiority over all other abbots. At present, in the Roman catholic countries, the chief distinctions are those of regular and commendatory. The former take the vow and wear the habit of their order; whereas the latter are seculars, though they are obliged by their bulls to take orders when of proper age.