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Abbess

(Lat. abbatissa). The female head of a community of women known as a nunnery or convent. She is elected to her position of authority, which is similar to that of an abbot* over the monks, by the secret votes of the sisters or nuns of the community. It is customary for a bishop to install her in her office with an abbatial cross, staff, and ring. She usually holds her office for life. In the Middle Ages she was often of noble or royal birth and so played an important part in the life of the church—e.g., St. Hilda in England who ruled over a double monastery* and took a leading part at the Synod of Whitby. The Council of Trent tried to regularize the position of the abbess and to bring her under the control of the diocesan bishop. In the German Lutheran Church the title remained in use for the head of collegiate foundations of unmarried women known as stiftsdamen.

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