Canonical Institutes and Religious Order

Canonical Institutes and Religious Orders

by Joan Morris

from Against Nature and God, Mowbrays, 1974, Chapter 3, pp 9-15.

See also:

Before entering into a detailed account of the powers of abbesses holding the jurisdiction of bishops, it is necessary to establish the different types of community-living groups that developed through the centuries. There was the group of persons who served the cathedrals, and there was the group of persons who first as hermits and anchoresses lived apart in desert places and who later came together and formed what is known as religious orders. The first group consisted of elected persons ordained for a special purpose in service of the Church, who for convenience lived together under a rule and became known as canons and canonesses. The second group did not consist of elected persons; they were not ordained to a service in the Church, but of their own free will adopted a life of penance and prayer and sought a special form of perfection with freedom for contemplation.

The group in service of the Church lived round about the Domus-Ecclesiae, the house-churches that had developed from the early Christian communities established in the houses of women as already mentioned. The Domus-Ecclesiae became the site of the bishops’ palaces and the cathedrals, with smaller churches attached. It seems that women were the first to live in community. Saint Peter found a group of widows surrounding Tabitha (Dorcas).(1) Saint Basil interprets this passage in the Acts to mean that she belonged to the Order of the Widows.(2) Canonesses like canons are considered to be of apostolic origin. The Augustinian rule for canonesses was written for women and later adapted to men.(3)

The canonesses could belong to either a Secular Canoness Institute or to a Regular Canoness Institute. Members of Secular Canoness Institutes took no vows; they did not live in a convent but in apartments with between three and four other members. They did not have to eat in community. They were paid prebends; that is, a salary, which in early times was in kind—so much food and so much drink. Later it was paid in money. The superior of a Secular Canoness Institute was an archdeaconess as, for example, at Uberwasser.(4) Or, according to George Fabricius,(5) the superior was given the name of Sacerdos Maxima, while members who were not superiors were called sacerdotes. Regular Canoness Institutes members lived together in a single house and took meals in common. They differed from religious orders by the end that they pursued—the members carried out services to the Church that had always been done by deaconesses: the teaching of religion to women, the running of schools, and the care of the sick. The liturgical service other than baptism performed by women was the celebration of Divine Office, which in early centuries was done in the cathedrals and churches as part of a parochial service.

A good example of a Canoness Institute that had as its chief work the chanting of Divine Office in a church that had the status of a parish church was that of Saint Waudru in Mons, Belgium.(6) It is particularly interesting because it started early in the seventh century and lasted until the French Revolution.

The task of historians would have been much easier had the Canoness Institutes and the Religious Orders remained well apart according to their initial aims. Unfortunately this was not the case. Two very different reasons caused an amalgamation of the two. Members of monastic orders who went into the desert and sought to hide in what was thought to be uninhabited islands unexpectedly found themselves surrounded by natives willing to listen to the Christian message, and the monks and nuns could not do other than serve the people. This happened in Ireland and in Britain, where monks and nuns, such as Saint Patrick and Saint Brigid, founded churches. The other reason that caused the slow elimination of Canoness Institutes in favor of religious orders was due to a policy followed by the hierarchy. Perhaps it was due to the greater insistence on the celibacy of priests that it was thought desirable to have canonesses cloistered in the way usual in the purely contemplative orders, and that canonesses should no longer be required to function in parishes or cathedrals but only in their own private chapels or churches.

The canonesses, naturally enough, resisted these new regulations in many places. The canonesses of Saint Mary’s Uberwasser refused on three occasions to be reformed; they resisted the imposition of the Benedictine Rule on them as they held a completely different vocation.(7) They eventually gave way and then became extinct. The canonesses of Saint Waudru, on the contrary, managed to maintain their rights up to the eighteenth century. In the Annals de Hainaut by Jacques de Guise there is a miniature illustrating the way the clergy, who attempted to eject the canonesses from their choir stalls in the Collegiate and Parish Church of Saint Waudru, were themselves ejected.

In the twelfth century the Counts of Hainaut took over the office of abbot of Saint Waudru, a post which from the seventh century had been held by elected abbesses. The canonesses appealed to the Holy Roman Emperor, but without any success. The counts as abbots held the right to allocate the prebends to persons of their own choice. Some of the prebends were given wrongly to canons instead of to canonesses. Count Régnier of Hainaut, instigated by Cardinal de Sancta Maria in Via Lata, sought to replace all the canonesses by canons. One morning when the canonesses arrived at the entrance of the Church of Saint Waudru they found the door closed, and canons inside had already intoned the introit of the Mass. But they mistakenly were singing the Common of the Martyrs, instead of the Proper of Saint Vincent, which was correct on that day. The canonesses forthwith from outside the church intoned the correct chant. The Count thereupon changed his mind and sided with the women, for he realized they were more precise in maintaining the liturgical regulations. He turned out the canons and permitted the canonesses to take their place.(3)

According to Ernest Matthieu,(9) in two other places in Belgium the clergy succeeded in turning out the canonesses. In Italy, men and women, both said to be sacerdotes, recited the Divine Office together in the Cathedral at Monza.(10) Later this was not allowed. In twelfth-century Milan, at the time of the existence of the dual cathedrals, the canonesses of Sancta Dei Genetrix were removed from a house close to the second cathedral, Santa Maria Maggiore, and they changed their name to the order of Santa Radegunda.(1l) It is clear from a letter of Archbishop Galdinus, who insisted on only the clergy of Santa Maria Maggiore having the right to say Divine Office and sit in the choir stalls, that the canonesses had done so earlier as members of the decumani of the cathedral. The decumani instituted by Saint Ambrose originally were clerical and included women; but in the letter of Galdinus the decumani are said not to be clerical. At one time the canonesses certainly served the women’s baptistery of Santo Stefano al Fonte, situated behind the Cathedral of Santa Maria Maggiore, while there was a second baptistery for men at San Giovanni Baptista behind the earlier Cathedral of Saint Tecla. Although the site of the dual cathedrals was only excavated in 1943-44, very few people know about it, and it is kept somewhat hidden. The canonesses of Sancta Maria Genetrix became the Benedictine Nuns of Santa Radegonda, that is, they were forced to change their vocation from one of service to the Church to that of a contemplative order.

The way of life of hermits and anchoresses was a very different vocation from that of the canons and canonesses. Although they lived in community as protection against bandits, they maintained the solitude of the desert by rules of silence. The ideal of detachment from the world was widespread. Already in the fourth century, Palladius gives the number of women in the desert as twenty thousand nuns as against ten thousand monks.(l2) History has been falsified by all the emphasis put on the Desert Fathers.

Although neither monks nor nuns were ordained persons, from very early times the monastic leaders were ordained. For example, the deaconess Marthana ruled over the cells of both men and women ascetics who settled around the memorial of Saint Tecla of Seleucia in fourth-century Asia Minor. This information is given by an eyewitness, Etheria, in her account of her pilgrimage through Egypt, Palestine, and Asia Minor.(13) She wrote a daily description of her journey. The shrine of Saint Tecla, she tells us, was situated fifteen hundred paces outside the city of Seleucia. There was a church with numberless cells of men and women. There she found her very dear friend, a holy deaconess, named Marthana, who was ruling over the cells of the apoctitae and virgins. The cells were on a hill in the midst of a great wall for protection against robbers.

The site has been excavated by Ernest Herzfeld, Joseph Keil, and Adolf Wilhem.(l4) Their findings confirm Etheria’s account.

Dating from the fifth century, the Wisigothic Sacramentary gives instructions for the ordination of abbesses. In the prayer it is stated that before God there is no discrimination of the sexes and that women, like men, are called to collaborate in the spiritual struggle.(15) They were invested with sacerdotal robes, the pallium, and the miter. In the Sacramentary of the Moisac Monastery the rite for the abbots and abbesses was identical. They prostrated before the altar and received the stole.

It was very common in both the East and the West for women to be leaders of double communities of monks and nuns.(16) It would be difficult to explain such a novelty if it were not an apostolic tradition arising from the women overseers, if not from the direct teaching of Our Lord himself, for he was accompanied by a group of women who provided for him and his apostles out of their own money.(l7) Eight women together with his mother are named as followers of Jesus in Galilee and as present at the Passion.(l8)

The position of women as leaders of double communities has sometimes been hidden. For example, the Basilian Order was not founded by Saint Basil but by his sister Macrina. It was she who persuaded Basil to abandon the glory of the world. For four years he lived a monastic life under her guidance, giving himself to working on the land and toiling with his hands. According to the brotherly remark of Gregory of Nyssa, this was necessary in order that Basil overcome his puffed-up pride after finishing his studies at the School of Athens.(10) After the death of her father, Macrina likewise persuaded her mother to join the community and to give up her servants and slaves in order to live at the same standard as they did, undertaking manual work, which was so much despised in countries of Greek culture.

Nevertheless, first place was given to the chanting of Divine Office, the Laus Perennis, celebrated night and day without intermission by a sequence of a group of nuns, restricted generally to the number of twelve persons. This was common practice in both the East and the West.

There is an astounding letter from Gregory of Nazianzus to Gregory of Nyssa on the occasion of the death of Theosebia, revealing her as holding a very high office in the Church. Gregory of Nazianzus calls her “the glory of the Church, adornment of Christ, the helper of our generation, the hope of women.” She is further said to be truly sacred, a consort of a priest and of equal honor to him, worthy of the Great Sacraments.(20)

The meaning of this letter has been greatly discussed. The reference to Theosebia as a consort of a priest has been taken to mean that she was the wife of Gregory of Nyssa. It was usual, however, for a wife to retire into a convent when her husband entered Holy Orders, although it could be that this regulation was not in force as early as the fourth century. It may be that Theobesia held an important place in the Church at Nyssa as Theodora Episcopa did at the Church of Saint Praxedis in Rome. The fact that she is said worthy of the Great Sacraments is held by some to mean that she could consecrate the Eucharistic species, because the word sacraments is in the plural.

It is possible that Theosebia held a position as co-episcopa as Saint Brigid of Kildare did in Ireland. For although, according to her biographer Cogitosus, Brigid was ordained bishop by Bishop Mel, she nevertheless called a hermit from his solitary life to govern the Church with her in episcopal dignity.(21) The most probable explanation of such a shared ministry is that as a woman Brigid could not consecrate the Eucharist, at least not until the age of sixty.(22) Perhaps Theosebia at a late age was able to do so considering that she was called worthy of the Great Sacraments.

Other examples of women consecrating the Eucharist are practically nil, but there are indirect proofs that there were some. In a document dated 1756 it is recorded that the canonesses of Saint Waudru had a rule that was destroyed because it made them similar to the Montanists, who consecrated their women as priests and bishops.(23)

The predominance of the monastic ideal and the slow termination of canonical orders for women caused fewer women to be ordained. Only the abbess and possibly one or two members in administration of a religious order would have been ordained; the nuns were consecrated virgins but not ordained. In a canoness order many more members would have been ordained, ordained, that is, at least as deaconess, or archdeaconess, as sacerdos maxima as will be seen in the following chapters.

The same predominance of the monastic ideal also affected men, so that secular priests as well as monks were obliged to be celibate. The removal of canonesses from close quarters to the cathedrals to some distance off took place in the twelfth century when celibacy for the priesthood became enforced.

Although ordained canonesses were hampered, it took literally centuries for the tradition to die.


Dalc Dictionnaire d’archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, F. Cabrol (ed.) (Paris, 1912-1955).

PG. – Patrologia Graeca, J. P. Migne (ed.), 161 vols. (Paris,1857-1866).

PL. – Patrologia Latina, J.P. Migne (ed.), 221 vols. (Paris, 1879-1890).

Chapter Three

1. Acts 9:36.

2. Mary Lawrence McKenna, Women of the Church Role and Renewal (New York: P. J. Kenedy & Sons, 1967), p. 43.

3. Vincent McNabb, “Was the Rule of St. Augustine Written for Melania the Younger,”Journal of Theological Studies (London: 1919} vol. 20, pp. 242-49.

4. See p. 63.

5. See pp. 132 ff.

6. L. Deviller, Chartes du Chapitre de Saints Waudru de Mons (Brussels: Archives de Hainaut; Mons: Archives de l’État, 1884-1906)

7. See p. 64 ff.

8. Deviller, op. cit., p. 54; Jacques de Guise, Annals de Hainaut, Ms. Reg. 9243 Bibliothèque Royale de Bruxelles, fol. 288.

9. Ernest Matthieu, Mons à Travers-les-Ages (Mons: Léon Dequesne, 1921), p. 53; information taken from Giselbert, Chronica, ed. Godefroy Menelglaise, T. L.

10. Antonio Francesco Frisi, Memorie delle Chiese Monzese (Milan: Galeazzi Regio stampatore, 1774), Dissitazione quarta, p. 92.

11. See Appendix VII.

12. C, Butler, The Lausiac History of Palladius (Cambridge: Texts and Studies, 1898), p. 212.

13. M. L. McClure and C. L. Feltoe, The Pilgrimage of Etheria (London: Palestine Pilgrim Text Society, 1897), p. 42 ff.

14. E. Herzfeld, “Marianilik”, Monumenta Asia Antiquis, American Society for Archeological Research (Oxford: University Press, 1930), vol 2, pp. 1-88; J. Keil and A. Wilhelm, “Denkmäler aus dem Rauhen Kilkien” (1931), vol. 3.

15. See Appendix V.

16. Mary Bateson, Origin and Early History of Double Monasteries, transaction of the Royal History Society (London: Longman, Green and Co., 1899), vol. 13.

17. Luke 8:1-2.

18. See Appendix II.

19. Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Vita Santa Macrina, PG. 46, col. 960 ff; W. K. Lowther Clarke, The Life of St. Macrina by Gregory of Nyssa (London, S.P.C.K., 1916).

20. St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Epistle 197, English translation in Ante-Nicene Fathers. S. II., vol. 7.

21. Cogitosus, “Vita Sanctae Brigidae” in Thomas Messingham, Florilegium Insulae Sanctorum seu Vitae et Acta Sanctorum Hiberniae (Paris: Cramoise, 1624), chap. VI, p. 193 ff.

22. See Appendix I.

23. Documents Officiels inédits sur l’histoire des Églises de Sainte Waudru et de St. Germain a Mons (Mons: Archives communale de 1’État, Société des Bibliophiles belges, 1843), no. 23, p. 88ff.

Please, credit this document
as published by!

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars’ declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

Visit also our websites:Women Deacons, The Body is Sacred and Mystery and Beyond.

You are welcome to use our material. However: maintaining this site costs money. We are a Charity and work mainly with volunteers, but we find it difficult to pay our overheads.

Visitors to our website since January 2014.
Pop-up names are online now.

The number is indicative, but incomplete. For full details click on cross icon at bottom right.

Please, support our campaign
for women priests
UK Pounds Euros US dollars OZ dollars CAN dollars 10 15 25 40 60 100 200

Join our Women Priests’ Mailing List
for occasional newsletters:

An email will be immediately sent to you
requesting your confirmation.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.