Citing declining enrollments and unacceptable financial burdens on the parishes supporting them, Camden Bishop Joseph A. Galante announced yesterday that he was closing six parish schools at the end of the school year.

Galante told a news conference the closings were "painful" but necessary for "laying the foundation for the long-term stability" of Catholic schools in the diocese.

St. Patrick School in Woodbury and St. Matthew School in National Park are among the six affected. The two Gloucester County schools will close their doors and consolidate at a newly named regional school at the site of Most Holy Redeemer School in Westville Grove.

The closings at all six schools will affect about 700 pupils in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Yesterday's announcement affected only four of the diocese's 12 geographic clusters. Study committees in the eight other clusters have recently begun reviewing their schools and will make recommendations to the bishop in June.

Galante said any further closings would not be implemented until September 2008. The diocese is made up of Camden, Gloucester, Salem, Cumberland, Atlantic and Cape May Counties, and has about 500,000 members.

Two of the six schools announced yesterday in Camden will be closed outright and their 40 teachers laid off. They are Immaculate Conception School in Bridgeton and St. Nicholas School in Egg Harbor City. There is no formal arrangement for where those students will attend school.

Teachers at the consolidating schools will be given priority in hiring at the consolidated sites, he said.

In Cluster 9, in addition to closing Immaculate Conception, the diocese will close St. Francis of Assisi in Vineland and consolidate it with Sacred Heart School, also in Vineland. The new facility will be named Sacred Heart Regional Elementary School.

In Cluster 10, St. Raymond School in Villas will close and consolidate at Our Lady Star of the Sea in Cape May. That school will be renamed Our Lady Star of the Sea Regional Elementary School.

Enrollment in the diocese's 52 schools has declined from about 15,000 to about 12,000 youngsters since June 2001, according to the diocese.

Study committees in the various clusters had urged Galante to keep some of the schools open, but he said he had to overrule their recommendations "for the common good."

He said all the affected schools had enrollments well below the 225 considered the minimum for schools to be self-sufficient. Several of the schools had become such burdens that the parishes were unable to fund adequate youth activities and other necessary programs.

In response to questions, Galante noted that St. Nicholas school had only 114 pupils, that 40 percent of the parish's regular income was being used to subsidize it, and that the parish was $63,000 in debt. "There was no hope for the future," he said.

Galante said the affected schools had been officially notified before the news conference, which began after schools closed for the day.

Teachers and parents at the schools had been aware that they faced closing.

"It's a great school," Barry Lukens, father of two children at St. Patrick's, told The Inquirer late last month. "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 kinds in line."

Joyce Sillars, who has taught at St. Matthew's for 25 years, described the school community as "family."

"Any decision that affects peoples' lives is difficult," Galante said yesterday. "But my greatest fear was to watch the schools and parishes slowly wither, one by one. That would be a tragedy."

School Closings

Atlantic County

St. Nicholas - Egg Harbor City

Gloucester County

St. Matthew - National Park

St. Patrick - Woodbury

Both consolidate under new name at Most Holy Redeemer - Westville Grove.

Cumberland County

Immaculate Conception - Bridgeton

St. Francis of Assisi - Vineland

St. Francis consolidates with Sacred Heart - Vineland.

Cape May County

St. Raymond - Villas

Consolidates with Our Lady Star of the Sea - Cape May.

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Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com

Inquirer staff writer Jan Hefler contributed to this article.