In churches across the country right now, someone is kneeling before a row of flickering candles, sending up a silent prayer for a lost loved one.
In Camden yesterday, Sister Helen Cole lit a candle to remember 29-year-old Felix Rodriguez, the first of 34 candles she will light this year, one for each of the city's 33 homicide victims and another for a man who died during a police-involved shootout.
Cole's yearly vigil routinely leaves her bathed in the red glow of dozens of candles, which she lights individually every hour, but she said that each flame is also a prayer for her beloved city.
"Help us make choices to make Camden a safer place to live," Cole said, her head bowed in prayer inside St. Joan of Arc Roman Catholic Church in the city's Fairview section.
In November, Camden was named the nation's deadliest city for third time in this decade. That ranking was based on crime statistics from 2008, a year in which the city recorded 55 homicides, with 11 in the month of January alone.
Throughout 2009 however, state and local law enforcement officials have touted decreases in crime numbers in the city. During a news conference in Trenton yesterday, Attorney General Anne Milgram reported that Camden saw a 40 percent decrease in homicides from the previous year, the largest decrease of all major cities in the state.
"I said from day one that the people of Camden deserved better," she said. "Camden is a safer place today than it was last year."
Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson, who took office in July 2008, said the drop in homicides is in line with an overall decrease in major crimes, the largest, he claims, in decades.
"For the first time, in our recording history, we're going to be below 6,000 major crimes. In the 1980s, we were recording 14,000 major crimes," he said yesterday.
Cole began her vigil at 5 p.m. yesterday by lighting a candle for Rodriguez, who became the city's first homicide victim of 2009 when he was gunned down on the front steps of his home on Jan. 6.
The oldest homicide victim this year, 74-year-old Thomas Marinelli, was killed in August just a few blocks from St. Joan of Arc when he was beaten by a thug who had broken into his home. Cole will light a candle for him at 10 a.m. tomorrow.
In October, 2-year-old Enalla Banks - lighting at 3 p.m. tomorrow - became the city's youngest homicide victim, when her father, Eric Banks, slit her throat inside his home in the Northgate I.
Cole said she visits with Enalla's mother often and expected her at the vigil later this week.
"I try to put a little peace in their hearts," she said of the victims' family members who attend the vigil. "I believe peace can happen in this city."
Thomson, who planned to join the candlelight vigil after last night's city council meeting, said Cole has been a bridge between law enforcement and the community for years.
"She's a genuine person," he said. "What she does is tremendous for helping the healing process for these families. Each one is someone's son, father, or brother."