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From Middle English penitentiary, from Medieval Latin pēnitentiārius (place of penitence), from Latin paenitentia (penitence), term used by the Quakers in Pennsylvania during the 1790s, describing a place for penitents to dwell upon their sins.


  • enPR: pĕn'·ĭ·tĕnʹ·shə·rē, IPA(key): /ˌpɛnɪˈtɛnʃəɹi/
  • (file)


penitentiary (plural penitentiaries)

  1. (chiefly US) A state or federal prison for convicted felons; (broadly) a prison.
  2. A priest in the Roman Catholic Church who administers the sacrament of penance.
  3. (obsolete) One who prescribes the rules and measures of penance.
    • 1623, Francis Bacon, A Discourse of a War with Spain
      Upon the loss of Urbin, the duke's undoubted right, no penitentiary, though he had enjoined him never so straight pennance to expiate his first offence, would have counselled him to have given over pursuit of his right, which he prosperously re-obtained.
  4. (obsolete) One who does penance.
  5. (obsolete) A small building in a monastery, or a part of a church, where penitents confessed.
    (Can we find and add a quotation of Shipley to this entry?)
  6. (obsolete) An office of the papal court which examines cases of conscience, confession, absolution from vows, etc., and delivers decisions, dispensations, etc.; run by a cardinal called the Grand Penitentiary who is appointed by the pope.
  7. (obsolete) An officer in some dioceses since 1215, vested with power from the bishop to absolve in cases reserved to him.


Related terms[edit]


Further reading[edit]


penitentiary (not comparable)

  1. Of or relating to penance; penitential.
    • 1654, John Bramhall, A Just Vindication of the Church of England from the Unjust Aspersion of Criminal Schism
      A penitentiary tax.
  2. Of or relating to the punishment of criminals.

Coordinate terms[edit]

  • (relating to the punishment of criminals): carceral