Camden's annual peace vigil began in 1995, when Sister Helen Cole wanted to mark a record 58 homicides that year with a candle per victim and an hour each.

As the first candle was lit this morning, it marked the start of the 2012 vigil, the longest to date. Camden has seen its bloodiest year, with 67 confirmed homicides, shattering 1995's record.

The vigil "really just brings you back to the reality: Things are really bad in the city," said Lourdes Sherby, 29, a social worker at the Guadalupe Family Services, which organizes the vigil. "They stop being numbers."

To bring the statistics to life, the organization lights a candle for each person murdered in the city. A prayer is said as each candle is lit, and the prayers are separated, so each victim has one hour dedicated to him or her.

This year's vigil will last 60 hours, the number of victims at the time Cole began planning the event. The seven lives taken since then will be remembered in the vigil's last hour.

The first candle, for Jorame Wise, was lit at 7 a.m. If all remains peaceful in the city, the last candle will be lit at 6 p.m. Monday for Rasheeda Peques, who was killed Dec. 16. The vigil, which is open to the public, lasts from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. today, Saturday and Sunday.

The vigil is designed to honor the lives of the dead, help bring peace to their families, and raise awareness of the city's situation, Sherby said.

"We ask that you give us hope and peace in the future," part of the hourly prayer reads. "Help us to make choices that will help Camden to be a safer place to live."

Sherby grew up in the city, eventually getting a master's degree from Rutgers – Camden before joining Guadalupe. Growing up, she said, people are shielded from the violence or desensitized by its frequency.

"I think when you're in it, it becomes an everyday thing . . . just a harsh reality," Sherby said of the violence. "If you put 67 [victims] in any other city, it'd be a shock. But you put it in Camden and it becomes the norm."

Family members of the victims are sent invitations to the vigil, and community members often stop by. No family members had come by the vigil by early afternoon, Sherby said, but others had been stopping by.

A 24-foot long scroll stands at the altar, with every victim's name and date of death handwritten by Cole. In the foreground, the candle of the hour burns, next to a name card and any photos or mementos brought by family. A white cross is planted in a flower pot in front of the table.

The crosses, which were placed in front of City Hall throughout the year, are available for family members who want them. They are decorated and each has a victim's name.

Sixteen candles will be lit, with sixteen crosses next to them, by the end of the first day of the vigil. That brings the vigil through to April.

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, 642 Market St., will open for the vigil again at 7 a.m. Saturday, with a candle for Gary Boggs, killed May 3.


Vigil for Peace, Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, 642 Market Street, Camden. 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Dec. 28 to Dec. 30 and 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Dec. 31

Contact Jonathan Lai at 856-779-3220, jlai@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @elaijuh.