Christine Meeusen first donned the nun outfit in 2011, when she was protesting against big banks in the Occupy movement. Calling herself an "activist nun," Meeusen gained popularity through her unusual garb and fight against what she calls "white man culture."
Five years later, Meeusen has continued her activist crusade through an unlikely source: marijuana. Still dressed in her habit and long skirt, Meeusen, going now by Sister Kate, has been cultivating marijuana in her garage in Merced County, California, and turning it into healing salves and ointments.
Her company, called Sisters of the Valley, began selling the products on their Etsy page and have since expanded to include another sister, Sister Darcy, and offer a variety of products.
"I wanted to design a product that could be exported from California and bring money in the Valley," said Sister Kate, "which is a very poor area."
The products produced by the Sisters is made from Cannabidiol, or CBD, which an active ingredient of marijuana. A key component of CBD, which Sister Kate is quick to stress, is that it is not psychoactive, meaning it is not addictive for users.
What makes Sister of the Valley products unique is not what is in the ointments, but how they are made. All production is done based on the lunar cycle, and revolves around ancient spirituality practices, according to Sister Kate. Some of these practices include praying over each product before shipping it.
Sister Kate was raised Catholic, attending a high school run by nuns. She said this played into her current choice of clothing, which represents a religion that she deeply understands. However, Sister Kate and the rest of her "sisterhood" are not Bible nuns. They simply wear the habit because it "means something" to others.
"Honoring Mother Earth, medicine making, and honoring people through activist work. That's our trinity," she said.
Members of the Catholic Church are not as accommodating to the Sisters' religious ideology. Just down the street from the Sisterhood's old home is St. Patrick's Church, a Catholic church who has heard of the nuns, but does not know them personally and does not support their actions. Secretary Sandy Minor said the nuns "act like sisters, but are not" and believed the nuns began wearing their "costume" in hopes "people will take to them more."
Another church in Merced, St. Anthony's Catholic Church, declined to comment.
Though Sister Kate admits there has been some backlash against their clothing choice, she said she has received mostly support and "didn't think I would offend" the Catholic Church.
Sister Kate and Sister Darcy began to receive media attention when they were discovered by a photography pair, Shaughn and John, around Thanksgiving. One of the photographers, John Dubois, said the sisters were very open and transparent to showing off their work and lifestyle.
"They seemed very authentic," said DuBois. "From what I can tell, this is really what they believe."
The popularity and business did not come without setbacks. Last winter, Etsy unexpectedly shut down their account, saying they had violated Etsy's policies.
In response, the Sisters opened up sales on their website and set up a Go Fund Me asking for $10,000, which, according to the website, would cover maintenance repairs and investment to expand their base. As of June 9, over $3,000 had been raised.
A second setback came this past January, when Merced passed an ordinance banning the cultivation of marijuana in light of California's Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act, which was an attempt to regulate California's marijuana business. This meant the Sisters of the Valley had to halt production, or continue illegally.
"We don't use products that cause people to get high," Sister Kate said, "Our intentions are pure. It's not acceptable it was banned overnight with no public input."
Sisters of the Valley moved out into the country to continue their business, though they continued to become outspoken advocates against the ordinance, going door to door to conjure up support against the ban.
Soon people were writing hundreds of letters to the City Council and showing up full-house to community meetings in protest. Sister Kate said they managed to get the ban turned around, and are waiting for the new legislation to become law.
The City Council of Merced tells the story of the ban differently. Mike Conway, assistant to the city manager, said the ban was a temporary measure put in place before the Council could develop their own legislation to regulate marijuana. What's more, Conway said the temporary aspect of the ban was made "very clear" to the public, including the Sisters.
"[The Sisters] claimed we drove them out of the city, and there is no truth to any of that," he said, "the Sisters are the Sisters, they are very good at publicity. We have gotten calls all over the country and have to keep re-explaining ourselves because of this."
When asked about continuing to advocate against the ban despite it being temporary, Sister Kate laughs.
"[The City Council] is doing a cute job of spinning," she said. "It's been six months and they have not lifted the ban. They are liars and don't do what they say they are going to do."
Conway said new legislation legalizing cultivation of marijuana in Merced was introduced April 20 and went to the planning commission on May 18. He said the City Council is expected to vote on the legislation in July. This new legislation would allow cultivation of up to six mature and 12 immature plants, the establishment of four dispensaries, and delivery services in the county. Sister Kate is not convinced this legislation will pass, or that it is a law benefiting the people of Merced. She said allowing only four dispensaries would not give opportunity for everyone, such as minorities, to cultivate marijuana.
"People of color are victimized by this racist law," said Sister Kate, "and I am offended. I am not going to stop until something changes."