Canonesses Regular of the Holy Sepulchre

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The Canonesses Regular of the Holy Sepulchre are a Catholic female religious order founded in the 14th century. They were originally the female branch of the ancient military Order of that name, the Canons Regular of the Holy Sepulchre. The Canonesses follow the Rule of St. Augustine.

A canoness regular of the Holy Sepulcher

The traditional habit was black, and, when in church, over the tunic the choir Sisters would wear a white, sleeveless, linen rochet, on the left side of which was embroidered a red, double-barred Cross. Where still used, a black veil is worn by the professed, and a white one by novices and lay sisters; the later category, however, was abolished among religious orders by order of the Holy See in the 20th century.


Concerning the foundation, there is a tradition connecting the way of life of the canonesses with St. James the Great, and depicting St. Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, as being given the religious habit of a canoness by St. Macarius, Bishop of Jerusalem. It was he who accompanied the Empress in her search for the True Cross.

Henri de Lorraine, comte de Chaligny, by Ferdinand Elle (1570-1637)


The earliest historical date on record is 1300, the year in which the Monastery of the Transfiguration was founded in the province of Teruel, by the Marquesa, Doña Gil de Rada. In 1306 the community was incorporated as part of the female branch of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, a military Order founded in Jerusalem. The Prior General of the Knights confirmed their prioress as Religious Superior of the community. The Spanish canonesses still live in their ancient monastery in Zaragoza, built in the Mudéjar style when they moved there later in the 14th century.[1]


The foundation of a house at Charleville in 1622 by the Marquise Claudine de Mouy, widow of Henri de Lorraine, the Count of Chaligny (1570–1600), was the catalyst for a great revival of the Order. New constitutions, drawn up by a Jesuit and approved by Pope Urban VIII in 1631, bound the canonesses to the recitation of the Divine Office, rigorous fasts, the use of the discipline, and a strict interpretation of the rule of poverty. Twelve was established as the minimum number of professed canonesses necessary for the canonical election of a prioress. All the monasteries of the Order in that country were swept away by the French Revolution, and the canonesses have not returned.


The only other monastery of the Order which has a direct ancient lineage is the Priory of Sion in Bilzen. It was founded in 1634 as a daughter house of the Monastery of the Holy Sepulcher in Hasselt. Mother Helena d'Enckevoert, Prioress of two houses in Maastricht and Liège, established the community. A school for poor girls was also established at Sion, which remained in operation until the monastery was closed in 1798 by the armies of the First French Republic during their occupation of the Low Countries.

Forty years later, two surviving canonesses of that community were able to re-acquire the monastery and resume monastic life there, along with two survivors of the other two communities. They then resumed their educational work, and the School of the Holy Sepulcher continues to operate today. The survivors were able to save a large part of the monastery archives, which remains a priceless source for the history of the Order and pre-Revolutionary Catholic life in Belgium.

In 1972, the canonesses acquired the grounds of the former Cistercian Abbey of Herkenrode, also in Belgium and also closed by French forces in 1798. They have built a new monastery and a retreat center there and are slowing renovating the surviving abbey buildings. The Church of the Risen Lord was built in 1982, and now serves the canonesses and their guests.[2]


Dame Susan Hawley was the foundress of the surviving English branch of the canonesses (born at New Brentford, Middlesex, 1622; died at Liège, 1706), having been professed at Tongeren. In 1642, she left with four other women for Liège, Belgium, to establish a monastery there for Englishwomen. By 1652, there was a sufficient number of professed canonesses that a canonical election could be held, in which she was elected prioress, in which capacity she ruled with rare prudence until her resignation in 1697. The community was able to provide an education for the daughters of Catholic families during Penal Times.

The school, opened under Dame Mary Christina Dennett, who was prioress from 1770 to 1781, proved so successful that, during the occupation of the Lowlands by the French, the English canonesses had great difficulty in securing permission to leave the city.

After three months at their monastery in Maastricht, they went to England (August, 1794), where they were sheltered by Lord Stourton (a member of an old Catholic aristocratic family) in Holme Hall, (Yorks), moved thence to Dean House (Wilts), and finally took possession of New Hall, near Chelmsford (Essex). They opened a free school for the poor children of the neighborhood and it is now an independent boarding school.[3]


As of A.D. 2011, there were monasteries of the Order in Belgium, Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, England, the Netherlands and Spain. The majority of the communities have ceased to wear a traditional religious habit, but their identifying insignia remains the double-barred Cross of the Order.



  • Max Heimbucher, Orden und Kongregationen (Paderborn, 1908)
  • Francesca M. Steele, Convents of Great Britain (St. Louis, 1902)
  • Hippolyte Hélyot, T.O.R., Dict. des ordres relig. (Paris, 1859)
  • Joseph Gillow, Bibl. Dict. Eng. Cath., s. v. Hawley, Susan.

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 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHerbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company.