Seventeen Sisters of the Holy Names and 14 of their lay associates renewed their vows in a special way last week on the feast of the Immaculate Conception.

At the school where many of them once taught - the Academy of the Holy Names in Albany - the sisters clutched candles and recited a prayer. AHN seniors then presented them with roses during a Mass presided over by Bishop Howard J. Hubbard.

Normally, the sisters celebrate in their own communities. "This is a new venture," said Sister Mary Frances Beck, SNJM, who entered the order in 1952.

Agreed Sister Karyl Fredricks, SNJM: "I've never [renewed religious vows] in the presence of students before."

Sister Mary Frances taught English, Latin and religion at AHN in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was located on Madison Avenue in Albany. She attended a grade school and high school run by the sisters in Washington.

Today, only two sisters remain on staff at the Albany school, but many serve on the board of trustees and committees and support AHN by attending events and musicals. Plus, Sister Mary Frances said, the lay faculty members "help to keep that spirit going."

The academy had laypeople on staff as early as the 1920s, Sister Karyl said, recalling the legendary story of a speech teacher who started in the early 1930s and retired just a few years ago.

Sister Karyl's life illustrates the influence of the school and the recent evolution of religious life.

She attended AHN and knew before graduation that teaching and being a woman religious was her vocation. "I think it was always part of my destiny," she said.

However, she hadn't realized that back when she was preparing for her First Communion as a child: She recalled that the priest asked the class who would become priests and who would become nuns. She and another girl who later became a sister were the only children who didn't raise their hands.

"I didn't understand how sisters could climb trees in those long dresses," Sister Karyl explained.

As a nun, she lived in a residence above the current music room in the lower school 40 years ago. Those bedrooms were converted into classrooms a few years ago.

After she entered the community in 1956, Sister Karyl taught preschoolers, youth and adults in Silver Spring, Md., in Albany and other locations. For the past 19 years, she's taught religion at AHN's lower school.

"I can't think of anything better to do when I get up in the morning than to teach," she told The Evangelist.

At the feast day Mass, Bishop Hubbard celebrated the Im-maculate Conception by reminding the congregants about Mary's decision to carry the Messiah. "Because Mary said yes," the Bishop said, "Jesus was born and we are saved."

He went on to list other women who have said "yes" to God: saints, the foundress of the Sisters of the Holy Names and the sisters themselves.

"In an age of narcissism, of 'I want, I want, I want,' the sisters, by the vow of poverty, witness to the common good," the Bishop stated.

He also highlighted the Ladies of Charity, many of whom attended the Mass to support the seven upper school students who were inducted into the Junior Ladies of Charity.