For more than a decade, Sister Helen Cole has conducted a year-end vigil for Camden's homicide victims.

This morning, Sister Helen lit the first of 53 red votive candles for 53 people homicide victims in the city in 2008.

"Some of the dead were victims of domestic violence, some were victims of robberies gone bad," said Sister Helen at St. Joan of Arc Roman Catholic Church in the city's Fairview section. "It's hard to know exactly what prompted each of their deaths."

This year has been one of the bloodiest on record for beleaguered Camden, which was named "Most Dangerous City in America" by a mid-western research company for two years running after homicides hit 54 in 2004 and 38 in 2005.

In addition to the 53, two other people died after being shot  by police in the line of duty.

Sister Helen has held the memorial for the city's murdered since 1995, when homicides topped out at 60.

"We hope we'll never reach that mark again," Sister Helen said. "We pray for peace in the city and hope that people will make choices that will help Camden be a safer place to live."

At 7 a.m., the 50-year-old nun held a match to the wick and watched the candle jump to life as Father Ken Hallahan intoned a solemn prayer.

"We gather at this hour to pray for Thomas Ortiz and for his family and friends," Hallahan said. "We remember the life of Thomas and we pray that the family and friends experience comfort and support in their grief and support."

Ortiz, 37, was the first of this year's homicide victims. An alleged stick-up artist, in 2006 he had worked undercover with State Police arrest a Camden police officer who had schemed with Ortiz to rob drug dealers. The officer, Michael A. Hearne of Woodbury, was sentenced in February to seven years in prison for the scheme.

Ortiz's killing has not been solved.

The 2008 vigil has been structured to make it easier for the grieving families, Sister Helen said.

In previous years, the memorial service ran 'round the clock.

"Some families had to arrive at 4 a.m.," Sister Helen said. "It was already tough for them. We decided to rework it."

So this year, the vigil will run Monday and Tuesday from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. and Wednesday, New Year's Eve, from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m.

At the top of each hour, Sister Helen or Father Ken will light a candle and recite the prayer for the dead.

"We hope some families come and feel comforted by our remembering their loved one," Sister Helen said. "But if they don't come, we understand.

"Those that come for the vigil cry and feel pain," she said. "Many ask if they can have the candle and the name card after it's over."

Contact staff writer Sam Wood at 215-854-2796 or at samwood@phillynews.com.
The vigil is being held at St. Joan of Arc Roman Catholic Church, 3107 Alabama Road, off Collings Avenue near Malandra Hall, in Camden's Fairview section. The public is invited to attend.