Dolores Williams; First nun in Peace Corps was artist, teacher

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Dolores Rohaley Williams was shocked and saddened, but also concerned that some Americans would treat all Muslims as enemies. She reminded family and friends to keep an open mind – and heart.

Her way of finding common ground while embracing differences was a result of her world travels and her work as the first nun accepted into the Peace Corps.

“She wanted us to believe that there was good in all people, regardless of their religious or ethnic background,” said her niece Stacy Oshrin of Anaheim, Calif. “She always hoped for a world without hatred based on how someone looked or what they believed. She inspired us to want to be better people.”

Williams of Atlanta died April 2 of heart failure at Emory Hospital, surrounded by family. She was 85. At least 10 Masses in her memory have been held around the country. At her request, her memorial service will be held at the family’s 2016 reunion in Virginia.

A daughter of Hungarian immigrants, Williams was born in 1929 in Grindstone, Pa. She was the second of 11 children in a family that struggled to make ends meet. Her father was a coal miner who died of black lung disease.

At age 14, she joined the Sisters of the Holy Spirit convent in Pittsburgh, where she studied art and music and excelled at both. The convent had her hand-paint china and gifts for bishops, tasks she enjoyed because they kept her off cleaning duty.

In 1951, she received her bachelor’s degree in fine arts and education from Carlow University in Pittsburgh. After earning her master’s degree in philosophy, teacher training and fine arts at Duquesne University, she became a teacher and principal at St. Edwards Middle School in Pittsburgh.

In 1966, Williams left the convent to work as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines. During her three years there, she spent a summer vacation teaching in a leper colony. She also sang the national anthem at a U.S. embassy baseball game where she met former Philippines first lady Imelda Marcos.

While working for the Peace Corps in Ethiopia, she met and married retired U.S. Marine Capt. John Williams in 1975. The couple moved to Santa Clarita, Calif., where they operated a gem store and she designed jewelry while continuing to teach art and paint.

Many of her paintings are displayed in churches across the country, including at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers and the Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha Catholic Church in Santa Clarita, for which she created a portrait of the church’s namesake Native American saint.

Williams never had children, but doted on her nieces and nephews. Oshrin said that during childhood visits to Williams’ house and gem shop, her aunt not only explained how a bee got stuck in amber, but also had Oshrin sort white gold from silver to teach her patience.

“She loved nature and took almost every moment to teach, but you didn’t realize it,” Oshrin said. “She could communicate with anyone whether you were 5 or 85.”

When her nephew grew his hair long and joined a rock band, she showed that she could transcend the generational divide, applauding and appreciating his successful music career.

“She never made us feel judged or less than,” said Oshrin, who did not grow up in church but later was baptized in her aunt’s home. “She conveyed spirituality in a way that seemed pure and not forced.”

After her husband’s death 11 years ago, Williams sold their gem store and relocated to Atlanta to live near two of her siblings. While a resident at Clairmont Oaks in Decatur, she organized an art appreciation program and taught classes. One of her landscape paintings hangs in the parlor.

She also was a violinist with the Four Seasons Chamber Orchestra, and hand-painted the programs for the group’s performance at Clairmont Oaks.

“That’s the kind of person Dolores was. She was always willing to share her talent,” said Judy Miller, a friend and Clairmont Oaks resident. “I am a better artist because of her.”

Williams is survived by brothers George Rohaley of Clarksville, Md., and Robert Rohaley of Warrenton, Va.; sisters Mary Ellen McClellan of Roswell, Rosemary Long of Patton, Pa., Rita Fowler of Covington, Bernadine Einloth of East Greenwich, R.I., Cecilia Beresford of Portola Valley, Calif., and Joanne Hendricks of Chicago Park, Calif.