Artistic talents combine with religious vocation

| Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013, 8:58 p.m.

If there's another kind of artistic expression out there in the world, Sister Dolores Conley is likely to find it, learn about it — and then teach it.

The 69-year-old sister who lives at the Benedictine Sisters of Pittsburgh monastery in Ross Township has brought her love of the arts and her talents to St. Athanasius Parish Education & Community Center in West View. If adults or children want to try their hands at fiber arts, drawing or painting, there are classes for those subjects during the winter session. Making handmade paper and calligraphy also are on the center's schedule.

Sister Dolores discovered art early. She loved coloring books as a child, she said, and was able to stay in the lines in the pictures she transformed from their black and white outlines.

“I knew to color the way the colors were,” she said, and won compliments from her parents and extra attention from her elementary school teachers in Hazelwood, a Pittsburgh neighborhood.

By grade seven or eight, she was taking classes in fashion drawing in Pittsburgh's East Liberty.

While she was certain of her interest in art, she wasn't sure how she could tie it and her religious vocation together. But she pursued both when she attended the academy on the monastery grounds as a high school freshman. In 1962, she became a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Pittsburgh.

“My dreams were fulfilled in a way,” she said.

She pursued degrees, first at La Roche College in McCandless and then at Carlow College in Pittsburgh, before eventually earning a master's degree in art education from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

“The more I knew, the more I could teach,” Sister Dolores aid.

She taught in local grade schools and brought her fascination with the art world to her students, just as she does today. Her favorites are ceramics and paper making.

Student Mary Doerfler, 11, of West View enjoys the art of paper making, as well.

“It's messy in a fun way,” said Mary, eager to begin her second paper-making class with Sister Dolores.

“It feels so cool to know how what we use so often is made.”

The steps are simple: Blend cotton linter with water, pour the pulp on a framed screen, pat out the shape on a towel, and press out the water. When the sheet takes its shape, it's time to iron out the extra moisture.

“Anything with fibers can become paper,” Sister Dolores explained — even wasp nests.

As the students — and two mothers — created their paper pieces, the teacher moved from bin to towel to ironing board to supervise their progress.

“This is fun,” said Christina Koman, 12, of Ross Township, at the beginning of the lesson.

Having taken a paper-making class at Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, Christina found some aspects of this afternoon to be new. Happily, she went home with a pretty purple sheet.

Sister Dolores said she enjoys interactions with each of her students, no matter their age.

“What I hope for the students is to enjoy an area of art they're not familiar with,” she said.

“Then, they can explain it to somebody else, display it or give it as a gift.”

The art of writing also has attracted Sister Dolores. She has written two books: “Bitsy and Big Leaf” and “Bitsy's Strange Adventures.” Bitsy is a tiny leaf that longs to explore the world. Along the way, he learns more and more about nature and himself. Sister Dolores' words and drawings tell the tales.

Sister Dolores also has a dance background. She added the art of liturgical dance to her repertoire in the 1970s. This was a natural transition from her ballet studies, she said. Using motions, steps and pirouettes, the parts of the Catholic liturgy are acted out.

“It's really a prayer,” Sister Dolores said. “That's what it should be to lift people up.”

Being creative does just that and can do something more.

“Every talent God has given us, we should use to praise him,” Sister Dolores said.

Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353 or

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