On Tuesday, Dec. 30 at 5 a.m., a 31-hour vigil will begin at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Camden: one hour for each person murdered in the city this year.
“I call my vigil a peace vigil. We’re praying for peace in the new year,” said Sister Helen Cole, a Sister of St. Joseph who has been organizing the vigil for the last 20 years.
“Every single person matters. When some of the families come, that’s part of the healing for them; we tell them that their child or their brother’s life mattered to us.”
Over the course of two days, the families of the victims will come to remember and pray for their loved ones during an assigned hour. Thirty-one candles will be lit at the front of a church with every victim’s name. Each hour, one occupies the center of the altar.
Sister Helen invites all of the Camden churches. During those 31 hours, she says, the church will never be empty.
In 1995, the year Sister Helen started the vigil with Jesuit Father Rick Malloy, the city saw 60 murders. The only time the vigil has been longer was two years ago in 2012, the year she held a 64-hour vigil commemorating the murdered from the deadliest year in Camden’s history.
This year, the number of murders has fallen by half. For that, Sister Helen thanks the new Camden County Police Force, headed by Chief Scott Thomson, and their efforts at community policing.
“You could really feel the difference here in the neighborhood. People were so happy,” Cole said. “I do think it has made the city feel a lot safer.”
She’s the director of Guadalupe Family Services, a non-profit based in notorious North Camden offering, among other ministries, counseling — what Sister Helen calls “companioning” — to the families of murder victims in the city.
In the row home on State Street that houses the non-profit, the windows used to rattle constantly from cars blaring music on the street. The crackdown on noise has made a big difference, she says.
“It’s absolutely amazing how much calmer the neighborhood seems,” she said.
Drug dealers that used to operate in plain sight on the corners have moved behind closed doors. And people are less likely to be murdered out in the open.
“That’s not what used to occur. They were mostly out on the street,” Sister Helen said. “Because there’s such a huge police presence, the shooters have a little more self-control because they’re probably going to get caught.”
It’s not just physical presence: police cameras are everywhere, along with high-tech microphones that instantly pinpoint the location of a gunshot on computer screens at the police station downtown.
But 31murders is still a lot for a city with a population of just under 77,000, and for Sister Helen, each of those victims is much more than a number.
“I try not to use the word recover because you don’t really recover,” she said. ”I tell my families, ‘you will ache until the day you go to the grave. I cannot take that ache from you. But I can help you love the ache.’”