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

Yesterday morning, Sister Helen lit the first of 55 red votive candles for the 55 people killed in the city as of Sunday.

"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."

Two of those memorialized were killed by Camden police in the line of duty, according to the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, which does not include those deaths in its 2008 homicide tally.

Sister Helen has held the memorial annually since 1995, when homicides topped out at 58.

"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's killing, the first in 2008, has not been solved.

This year's vigil has been structured to make it easier for the grieving families, Sister Helen said. Previously, the memorial service ran around the clock at St. Joan, 3107 Alabama Rd., off Collings Avenue.

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

The current vigil will continue today from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. and tomorrow from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. The public is invited.

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 samwood@phillynews.com.