Sister Helen Cole has worked in Camden, NJ for over 20 years.  Camden, NJ has had the recurring honor as being the most dangerous city in the United States.sister head shot cropped

What follows is an article that was published in the New York Times on December 29, 2004 written by Jeffrey Gettleman –

A Nun’s Blessings

Sister Helen Cole is known in North Camden as Sister Charles Bronson.

The other day she was walking down York Street with an Our Lady of Guadelupe pendant swinging from her neck, past once-beautiful peaked-roof houses now encased in burglar bars, past men in hooded sweatshirts mouthing “white horse, white horse,” past murals of dead boys with R.I.P. painted below their faces in huge snazzy graffiti letters, when she bumped into a neighbor.

“Hey, Terry,” she said. “Just doing a tour of the holy ground.”

“Sister,” the woman replied, “all Camden is going to be holy ground soon.”

When somebody is killed, Sister Helen goes to the spot with a bottle of holy water. She lights a candle. She says a prayer. The spot becomes holy ground. She has turned sidewalks, street corners, porches, alleyways, weed-choked fields and even a Toyota Celica into holy ground. Lately, she has been very busy.

She began this work in 1995 when the mother of a missing girl knocked on the convent’s door for help. The girl had been raped and murdered. Sister Helen hasn’t looked back since.
“I’m not a seeker, an ambulance chaser,” she said. “But I enjoy taking away pain. I hold out my hands and tell people, ‘Give me your pain, put it in my hands, let it go.”‘

She calls it companioning.

Every year on Good Friday, Sister Helen, a Roman Catholic nun, leads a Stations of the Cross procession through North Camden. People act out scenes from Christ’s crucifixion and then stand on the street corners and belt out the names of known drug dealers and pray for them.

“I’m not stupid,” Sister Helen said. “I’m not going to go up to these guys and confront them. I value my life.”

How does she even know their names?

“We coached them in Little League,” she said

Her church, Holy Name, has been running sports programs and social services in North Camden for years. It is one of the roughest neighborhoods in the city, and many houses have an unusual architectural feature: the totally fortified front porch, with burglar bars walling off not just windows and doors but the whole front part of the house. The police call them birdcages, and on many days when the streets are thick with drug dealers, it is the law-abiding citizen sitting behind bars.

Sister Helen, 46, lives amid all this in a convent on State Street with four other nuns. They have a Christmas wreath bound to their porch with three chains.

I think that you can agree that what Mother Theresa is to compassion, Sister Helen is to bravery.  Sister Helen you rock.

Stock photograph of the famous World War II poster "We Can Do It!" showing Rosie the Riveter wearing a red bandana and flexing her muscles against a yellow background, created by J. Howard Miller. The woman that modeled for this image was actually named Geraldine Doyle and was a real riveter in the 1940s.

About Bernadette

I live in the small town of Haddonfield, NJ. I am at an age in my life when I seem to spend time thinking and musing about life. These musings are usually stimulated by my walks through Haddonfield, my reading of books and fellow bloggers, and my interaction with my group of fabulous family and friends.

4 Responses

  1. Thanks so much for sharing about this gutsy, giving Religious Sister. It’s always edifying (& humbly convicting) to read about women generously going outside & beyond themselves to make a positive difference. Don’t know that Sister self-identifies as a feminist, but she’s one strong God-fearing/loving woman. Bravo! for highlighting her life’s work Makes all women (and men) proud, for sure! God bless you.


  2. She sounds amazing.

    I used to work not far from Camden, and (at 18) had no idea how dangerous it was to walk the streets. I was oblivious, complete in my naivete.

    “We used to coach them in Little League.” It breaks my heart that our precious children grow up to be dangerous adults.

    There HAS to be an answer. How can we intervene? Why can’t everyone in Camden join together to stop the madness?



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