| Famous abbesses of the past include Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century visionary,
theologian, composer, artist, and healer.
An abbess is the female counterpart of an abbot. This title derives from abba, "father" in Aramaic and Syriac, which makes the abbess the mother of her community. Hers is an elected office over a group of twelve or more nuns in an abbey. (Abbey and monastery are interchangeable words.) The term abbess has been used since the sixth century within the Benedictine order, though now it's generally applied among religious cloisters of women. The abbess was originally a woman of noble rank as recognized within the structures of feudal society. She had the capacity to sit on councils, and in some situations governed double monasteries of both monks and nuns.
Was she powerful? You bet. In the feudal period, an abbess wielded temporal, spiritual, and ecclesial authority that bordered on the episcopal: that is, she held a rank similar to a bishop within the borders of her cloister and associated territories, and was answerable to no authority under the pope. Today's abbesses hold a more limited authority over their communities in spiritual and temporal matters.
Famous abbesses of the past include Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century visionary, theologian, composer, artist, and healer. She ran into conflicts with clerical leaders and eventually moved her community to Bingen in order to govern without interference. Her power was so strong and she inspired such devotion in her nuns and priest spiritual directors that it's no wonder she filled some clergy with alarm. Her canonization was delayed for centuries, and only in 2012 did Pope Benedict XVI recognize her as a Doctor of the Church.
Teresa of Avila in the 16th century was a remarkably capable abbess who reformed the Carmelite order and encouraged John of the Cross to do the same with the monks under his charge. Teresa is another Doctor of the Church named belatedly in 1970, and at the time of her death the Spanish Inquisition was investigating her for possible heresy. Eleventh-century Abbess Heloise of the Paraclete community was considered a brilliant scholar and governor of her community. Heloise is remembered mostly for her tragic love for Peter Abelard. Finally, Scholastica, twin sister of Benedict, was co-founder of the Benedictines with her brother. While the term abbess was not used in the 5th century to describe her, Scholastica fulfilled that role admirably for her nuns. As Gregory the Great said of her: "She could do more, because she loved more."
Films: "Hildegard" (Gateway/Vision Video 1994) "Teresa de Jesús" miniseries (Televisión Espanola, 1984)
Books: The Life of Teresa of Jesus: the Autobiography of St, Teresa of Avila - transl. E. Allison Peers (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1960)
The Life of the Holy Hildegard - The Monks Gottfried and Theodoric (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1995)