Sister Kate is not your average nun. She’s the founding member of the Sisters of the Valley, and her order subscribes to a higher power.
Her vows are not ones of Catholicism, but of servitude, activism, and spirituality, and her rituals are guided by the cycles of the moon.
Born Christine Meeusen, Sister Kate attended the University of Wisconsin and received her degree in Business Education, before working as a business analyst for companies up and down the east coast.
But now, she’s the head of a thriving medical cannabis company, which is set to net more than $1 million in sales alone in just their third year of operation.
However, the industry is risky and is a legal grey area. Despite the hurdles the Sisters of the Valley face, they continue with what they describe as the desire to help and heal not only those who purchase their products, but the economically desolate region they inhabit, and the nation as a whole.
The Sisters’ abbey is a one-story building that can be found on a small one-acre farm in the Central Valley of northern California in the town of Merced, about two hours south of the state’s capital of Sacramento.
Sister Kate lives there herself, with her plants, and whoever of the seven other sisters, ranging in age from 23 to 58, who wish to join her. The number often varies as women come and go, and two more Sisters from Canada recently took their vows so that they can expand the order the marijuana growth in Toronto.
She hires locals from the Merced community who were ‘made to feel like “throw away people”,’ Sister Kate says, to help farm her plants in an effort to help stimulate the area which has struggled substantially with crime, addiction, and unemployment. Most recent statistics find that 31 percent of the area’s population lives under the poverty line, and unemployment rates nearly double the state average at 10 percent.
‘I’ve never seen a place so economically depressed in my life,’ Sister Kate said. ‘I realized what I really needed to do was design a line of products that could be sold around the world and bring outside money into this area, and bring jobs to these poor people.’
And then began the Sisters of the Valley.
The moon cycles are the rotations by which the women live their lives, and operate their business. They plant and harvest marijuana plants by the cycles, beginning a batch of medical cannabis on the new moon and harvesting its hemp on the full moon.
Every full moon, the Sisters host a ceremony which is open to the public and has grown to include 40 to 50 people in recent months as news spread of their movement.
The ceremony includes a celebration feast and fireside rituals, attended by adults and children, which sometimes go until 1am, Sister Kate says.
‘We celebrate any birthdays, events, births, anything special that happened in the lives of our tribe,’ she continued. ‘In the summer they go late because the children don’t have school, in the winter we’re more strict on getting everyone out of here and a good night’s sleep.’
‘First rule of ancient wisdom: don’t make your people sick,’ she later added.
One such ceremony was held by the balmy July moonlight, and all seven sisters were present. The two newest members from Toronto, Sisters Claire and Stephanie, said their vows, which include life-long pledges to servitude and activism for the people, ecology for mother earth, chastity and living simply.
‘The donning of the habit infers a standard of excellence,’ Sister Kate proclaims in a synopsis of her coven. Together they take on the mission to create the products they believe embrace all of these vows – which are blessed with the lighting of sage and recitation of various incantations.
The products that the Sisters of the Valley produce are blessed by the unique combination of beliefs they possess, which Sister Kate symbolizes as an overlap between local Native American tribes and ancient European traditions of the beguine women, who were historically unmarried independent women who pioneered feminist and liberal ideologies.
Most popular among their products is their salve, which Sister Kate calls the ‘Burts Bees’ of their line. It is made from with coconut oil, hemp, beeswax, and has essential oils added such as lavender, calendula, and vitamin E.
‘It’s the thing I think we have zero competition in the market – we were very deliberate in taking the advice of herbalists to come up with our formula,’ Sister Kate said.
She estimates that about half of their monthly income, about $50,000 a month, comes from sales of the salve. The primary feedback she’s heard from customers is that it has helped them wean off of their pain pills.
‘We were aiming for a muscle and joint reliever – but what we got is something that puts migraines away, or prevents them – that people are rubbing on their temples so they don’t have to take sleeping pills at night. That cure diaper rash, skin cancers and hangovers – someone wrote us recently and said: “If you rub it on your forehead when you have a hangover it’ll make it go away.”
‘My own mother says if she remembers to put it on her knees when she wakes up in the morning she doesn’t need her cane, but if she forgets that by noon she’s using her cane.’
In addition to the salves, they also create cannabis oils made from liquid coconut and hemp, and tinctures, which come in a plant-based form and alcohol form.
The foundation of the Sisters of the Valley emerged from years of discussion following an enlightenment experienced by Sister Kate when she joined the Occupy movement in the fall of 2011.
After Congress declared pizza as a vegetable in an effort to make school lunches more ‘healthy’ for children – Sister Kate, then still Christine Meuusen, decided that if those distinctions could be made, she would go from a businesswoman to a nun. This move earned her the nickname of ‘Sister Occupy’ by fellow protesters.
Her self-described ‘15 minutes of fame’ led others to be interested in joining her unique style of resistance, something that at first surprised the mother-of-three.
‘I’m a self-declared solo activist nun. I’m very annoyed with the system. But people are wanting to formalize it and join me, so it was very deliberate,’ she said.
Because there was a concentrated effort to ‘formalize’ her movement – it began a path of soul-searching, and attempts to decide what she wanted to project moving forward.
‘We didn’t want to be a religion because traditional religions are picking the pockets of the poor people, they’ve got their own class system, they’re all male run, they all have some corruption in them so no – we don’t want to be a religion – we don’t want to identify as that,’ she said.
‘We’re not affiliated with any religion and we never will be.’
When the topic of creating a non-profit organization arose, that too was shot down.
‘The NFL is a non-profit. The whole concept of a non-profit has been abused in this country so it no longer means anything,’ Sister Kate continued.
Thus became the decision to be founded with the inspiration of thirteenth century sisterhood, the beguine women.
‘We call ourselves beguine revivalists,’ Sister Kate said.
‘The beguines actually were either burnt at the stake or shut down because they wouldn’t turn Christian. They didn’t affiliate themselves with any one religion. They grew hemp, they made medicine, they grew plant medicine and they were the first organized nurses in the castles across Europe,’ Sister Kate continued.
‘They believed in women having private property and women having businesses. So instead of living together in an abbey, they wore uniforms like we wear, they dressed alike to be identified by their enclaves and they would cluster their houses together and work together. And do common farming of hemp together and make medicine together. They made housing security for poor women – they brought them in, trained them, cleaned them up, gave them honorable jobs and took care of them.’
As modern-day women, the Sisters of the Valley aim to promote their ancient vision for caring and bettering the poor through plant-based medication, while taking advantage of the connectivity that has been forged by centuries of advancement.
‘Our guiding question is – what would our ancient mothers do? But we also say, what would our ancient mothers do if they had the internet and the post office to get their medicines everywhere?’ Sister Kate continues.
However, as Sister Kate points out, they are not allowed by the FDA to refer to their products as medicine. Likewise, they are not allowed to publish the testimonials for their products publicly, or use the word ‘healing’ in their marketing.
Despite the hundreds of people who have written the Sisters describing the success they’ve achieved with ailments using their salves, oils and tinctures, their production process lies within in a realm that can best be described as a legal grey area.
‘It’s very confusing – and it shouldn’t be,’ Sister Kate says.
‘But the international law says that if you have less than .3 percent of THC you’re then hemp because no one can get high from it. Then they put you in the category of hemp. But we are not growing industrial hemp. If we had to grow industrial hemp we would have to do 10 acres to get a handful of CBD – and everybody that thinks we’re growing hemp gets angry at us because that’s a wasteful way of getting to CBD.’
CBD (cannabidioil) is a compound found in the marijuana plant that is said to have healing properties, opposite to THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) which produces the signature psychoactive ‘high’.
While the Sisters’ farm is in northern California, thought to be the state most liberal in terms of marijuana legislation, there is still little knowledge about CBD and even less about how to characterize it within existing laws.
‘We are not growing industrial hemp – we grow medical cannabis,’ Sister Kate continued.
‘If international law wants to call non-psychoactive cannabis hemp then I can’t fight with them on that – for legal reasons. So we’re medical hemp I guess, and that’s not a thing.
‘We just happen to grow strains that have been developed – mated and mated generation after generation – high CBD to high CBD, low THC to low THC, and there’s been like 10 or 20 generations of plants bred so that the THC is practically non-existent but there still is a little bit of THC. And those are the plants we use.’
The misunderstanding surrounding what exactly the Sisters are making has caused a horde of legal problems for them in the nearly three years since they’ve been in business. They first established their products on the online sales platform Etsy, but were kicked off for violating their drug protocol. The group has also been forced to move farms on one occasion.
The use of medical and recreational marijuana is legal in the state of California as of November 2016 when Proposition 64 was passed. However, there are a number of varying regulations surrounding the usage of the plant, and specifically, selling it.
Proposition 64 allows for a maximum of 12 plants to be grown for medical use, and six plants for recreational use. Strictly prohibited, however, is the growing of said plants with the intent to sell it?
The Sisters have since hired activists to represent them and aid in guiding them through the process of becoming legal, because their current processes lie somewhere against and within the county and state laws.
The Sisters’ political adviser Will Skaarup of the Canna Group maintained that what the women are doing is in fact legal – although they don’t yet have a permit from the county for their business.