Fifth-grade teacher Joyce Sillars gazes sadly at the empty chairs in her classroom and fights back tears after dismissing her students for the day.

Sillars, who teaches at West Deptford's St. Matthew Elementary School, expects the Diocese of Camden to close the 50-year-old school in June as part of a consolidation of schools and parishes announced last week.

The announcement of looming school-closings has sent waves of worry through many of the nearly 500,000 South Jersey Catholics.

Though many students, teachers and parents recognize that the diocese must adjust to changing demographics, the loss of beloved schools is sure to bring heartbreak.

"I would hate to see my kids leave here. It's a great school," said Barry Lukens, who has two children at St. Patrick School in Woodbury. "It has a lot of history behind it, too. My wife went here and all her brothers and sisters. The teachers are great and keep the kids in line."

The diocese said that, over the next two years, it will pare schools and parishes to adjust to population shifts and changing times. Sharp declines in enrollment, school deficits and a drop in the number of priests have created the need to close some schools and parishes, according to Bishop Joseph A. Galante.

St. Matthew is the smallest Catholic school in Gloucester County, with 139 students in preschool through eighth grade. Enrollment declined 32 percent in the last four years.

Schools with enrollments below 225 students cannot be sustained for financial reasons, the diocese says.

"It's such a shame," said teacher Sillars, who believes she now must find "a real job," as her friends repeatedly suggested during the 25 years she has taught at the school. "It's a family here. I'll have to find a new family, too," she said.

The diocese has 52 schools with nearly 12,000 students in New Jersey's six southernmost counties. It is the latest in a string of Catholic dioceses in the Northeast to thin schools, long considered a safe, solid alternative to public schools. Earlier this month, the Diocese of Wilmington in Delaware announced it would close a 114-year-old school, and other schools are about to be shuttered in Boston, New York City and Buffalo.

The Camden diocese plans to release names of the first set of school closings - which may include St. Matthew - during the first week of February. Those schools would close in June, according to Andrew Walton, diocese spokesman. The second batch of closings, which will include churches, will be announced in June; those institutions would be shuttered the following year.

Sister Maria Liber, the St. Matthew school principal, said she has not received official word.

"It's sad, but it's a reality we have to face. I commend the parents for the sacrifices they have made, but we have to do what's best for all of the students," she said.

Dawn Helms, who has three children at the school, is among a group of parents and grandparents who fear the worst.

"I'm devastated," she said, as laughing, skipping children were dismissed from school the other day.

"I know there's low enrollment, but I'm not sure closing down is exactly what should be done," said Helms, who pays $4,650 tuition for all three children.

She said her shy kindergartner has improved self-esteem under the tutelage of his teacher, Sister Lucy, and her other two children have excelled in what she says is a nurturing environment.

Chloe, her sixth grader, piped up from the minivan passenger seat: "I will be sad because everyone is friendly and everyone knows everyone. I have friends here and our teachers are really good."

Kathleen Halas, whose two grandchildren attend the school, grumbled: "I think the diocese has plenty of money to keep the little schools going. If the children have to go to bigger schools, the classes will be bigger and there will be less time to answer a question."

Walton said that the first closings and consolidations will come from four geographic clusters of schools, including the Woodbury area of Gloucester County. Among the Woodbury-cluster schools are St. Matthew, St. Patrick in Woodbury, St. Margaret in Woodbury Heights, and Most Holy Redeemer in Westville. The other three clusters are in Cumberland, Atlantic and Cape May Counties.

In the Woodbury cluster, only St. Margaret has a large enrollment. Walton said the smallest schools are not necessarily the ones that will be shut. Other factors, including location, finances and accessibility, are being studied, according to the diocese.

At St. Patrick, which has 185 students, parents were full of anxiety.

"I'm just waiting to hear one way or another," said Maggie Bubar, who has two children enrolled. "I'm just praying."

Looking Ahead

A time line for changes in the Diocese of Camden:

2007

February: School closings in the Woodbury cluster will be announced.

June: Committees studying school closings or mergers in the rest of Gloucester County and in Camden County will make their recommendations to the bishop.

August: Committees studying parish closings will issue their recommendations to the bishop.

September: School closings in the Woodbury cluster will take effect.

2008

Spring: Other school closings in Gloucester and Camden Counties will be announced.

August: Parishes will be notified of closings.

September: Those school closings will take effect.

SOURCE: Diocese of Camden

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Contact staff writer Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com.