A canoness is a member of a religious community of women living a simple life. Many communities observe the monastic Rule of St. Augustine. The name corresponds to the male equivalent, a canon. The origin and rules are common to both. As with the canons, differences in the observance of the rule have given rise to two types: canonesses regular and secular canonesses.
In most religious Orders and congregations, communities of men and communities of women are related, following the same rules and constitutions. There are canonesses regular as well as canons regular with the apostolic origin being common to both. In the first centuries of the Church, the one generally began with the other. Saint Basil the Great in his rules addresses both men and women. Saint Augustine founded his first monastery for women at Thagaste (Souk Ahras) in that part of Africa now called Algeria. Most, if not all, of the congregations which go to form the canonical order had, or still have, a correlative congregation for women. In Ireland, Saint Patrick instituted canons regular and Saint Bridget was the first of numerous canonesses. As with the canons so also among the canonesses, commitment to liturgical prayer, discipline and love of community life at first flourished but then languished, so that in the tenth and eleventh centuries several monasteries became secular and, though living in the same house, no longer observed the spirit of poverty or kept a common table.
Communities of Canonesses Regular developed from the groups of women who took the name and the Rule of life laid down for the various congregations of canons regular, such as the Norbertines. They would take religious vows and, like the canons, followed the Rule of St. Augustine. They have the same obligation to the Divine Office as do the canons, and like them, the distinctive part of their religious habit is the white, linen rochet over the traditional black tunic. Again, like the canons, some congregations have simply replaced the rochet with a white tunic for their habit. Unlike nuns, whose communities generally followed the Rule of St. Benedict and supported themselves through farming, communities of canonesses would dedicate themselves entirely to various forms of social service, such as nursing or teaching.
There still exist in Italy, France, Spain, Belgium, Holland, the United Kingdom, Germany, Africa and the United States canonesses belonging to the congregations of canons regular. The canonesses embraced the contemplative life in such monasteries as Newton Abbot in England, Santa Pudenziana in Rome, Santa Maria di Passione in Genoa, Hernani in Spain and Saint Trudo in Bruges. They also ministered in hospitals in France with monasteries of canonesses regular at Paris, Reims, Laon and Soissons until the late 20th century.
Some communities of canonesses occupied themselves in the education of children, for example the Canonesses of the Congregation of Notre Dame (French: Congrégation de Notre-Dame de chanoinesses de Saint-Augustin), instituted in 1597 at Mattaincourt, in Lorraine, by St. Peter Fourier, C.R.S.A., and the Blessed Alix Le Clerc, C.N.D. This congregation, whose charism is the education of poor girls, spread rapidly in France and Italy. In France alone, until the persecution of 1907, they had some thirty communities and as many schools for externs and boarders. Driven from France, some took refuge in England, like those of the famous convent of Les Oiseaux, Paris, who moved to Westgate-on-Sea, and those of Versailles who settled in Hull.
In the 17th century, the Canonesses of Notre Dame of the monastery at Troyes in northeastern France wanted to extend their service to the newly founded colony of Canada (New France), part of New France. Their obligations as an enclosed religious order, however, prevented their going, but at their request, Marguerite Bourgeoys, the president of the confraternity attached to their monastery, gladly crossed the ocean. In 1657 she opened a school in Montreal, in which, in accordance with the rules laid down by St. Peter Fourier, the poor were taught for free. The school was a great success and Marguerite returned to France to look for helpers. Returning to Canada with four women, she opened a school for boarders as well as a day school. In 1676 these women were formed into the Congregation of Notre Dame, which, however, did not embrace the monastic life of canonesses. Marguerite died in 1700 and was later canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1982. At her death there were ten houses in Canada.
In a similar manner, in 1897, the Canonesses of St. Augustine in Belgium answered the request of a missionary priest in Mulagumudu, India, for help with an orphanage he ran there. They sent several of their members to serve at this facility. Although they found, upon their arrival, that the priest had since died, they took on the care of the orphans he left behind. Not long after their arrival, and led by their Mother Superior, Mother Marie Louise De Meester, the Sisters went on to form an independent religious congregation called the Missionary Canonesses of St. Augustine, composed of many local Indian women as well as Europeans. In 1963, however, inspiried by the Scheut Fathers with whom they frequently worked and from whom they received much spiritual support, the congregation chose to drop its monastic element, and transformed itself into the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
In England the Canonesses Regular of the Holy Sepulchre established a school at New Hall; although no longer ministering in the school, what they founded continues to flourish. At one time there was a community at Hoddesdon, devoted to the contemplative life and perpetual Eucharistic Adoration. This convent was a link with the pre-Reformation canonesses, through Sister Elizabeth Woodford, who was professed at Barnharm Priory, Buckinghamshire on 8 December 1519. When the convent was suppressed, in 1539, she went to the Low Countries and was received into the convent of canonesses regular at Saint Ursula's, Louvain. Numerous women followed and a separate English-speaking community was established. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, this community of English canonesses returned to England.
In late medieval Europe, on the other hand, many communities arose where unmarried daughters and widows from among the nobility could withdraw to monasteries in which they lived pious lives of devotion, but did not become nuns. As they did not follow a monastic Rule (Latin: Regula), they were termed secular canonesses. Generally speaking, these monasteries were entirely composed of aristocrats. Unlike nuns, they took no vows, and were not committed to a life of poverty, or to a common life for eating and sleeping. Essentially they provided a respectable, yet religious, way of life for those women who might not have been desirous of marriage at that stage in their lives, or simply wanted to focus on prayer in a manner befitting their station in life. They had no obligation to celibacy and thus could leave at any time to marry, which happened not infrequently.
During the Protestant Reformation, these communities almost invariably accepted the new faith. Some continued to exist as communities of single women supported by the local rulers. Almost all had ceased to exist by the 20th century.
As of 2009 in the United Kingdom, Augustinian canonesses were found in Cumbria, East Sussex, Suffolk and London. and the Canonesses Regular of the Holy Sepulchre at Chelmsford, Colchester and London. The Canonesses of the Mercy of Jesus were found in the Lake District and are unusual in that there are also Benedictine sisters in the community which states that its "...caring and hospitality is centred around the liturgical life of the community, and it is our great joy to share the Eucharist and the Hours of Divine Office not only with our residents but also with friends of all denominations."
In 1993, a Norbertine Monastery, the Bethlehem Priory of St. Joseph, was established at Tahachapi, California. This is the only existing community of canonesses in the United States.
In 2009, the Canonesses of the Mother of God were to be found at Gap in France and are linked to the Canons at Lagrasse. In the early 2000s a group of women established the Sisters of Jesus the Lord as a private association, based in the United States and linked to the Canons of Jesus the Lord, located in Vladivostok, Russia. As of 2009, they were awaiting canonical approval.
- The Canonesses of St. Augustine of the Mercy of Jesus
- Congregation de Notre Dame, Canonesses of St. Augustine, French language
- The Sisters in Jesus the Lord
- The Canonesses Regular of the Mother of God, France
- The Canonesses Regular of the Holy Sepulchre, the English Community
- The Association of Canonesses Regular of the Holy Sepulchre