The Roman Catholic Diocese of Camden plans to announce on Thursday a reconfiguration that could merge some of its 124 parishes.

The plan has been under discussion with individual parish representatives for more than a year.

Bishop Joseph Galante plans to make the announcement through a Web cast available at the diocese's Web site

at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, and his full remarks will be printed in the next day's edition of the weekly Catholic Star Herald, the diocese said.

The South Jersey parishes are being reorganized to address a coming shortage of priests as well as shifting demographics that have left some churches sparsely attended.

The bishop has said that by 2015 there will be half as many priests as there were in 2005, when the diocese had 171. There are now 162 priests.

Some churches could remain with the one priest-one parish model, while others could be merged or clustered, or put in other possible arrangements.

"Every diocese in the Northeast is dealing with these issues," said Andrew Walton, the bishop's spokesman. "Even if we weren't dealing with these issues, we'd still be planning for more vibrant ministries."

Members of at least one church, South Camden's Our Lady of Mount Carmel/Fatima Church, have started a campaign to preserve their parish. One diocese proposal would have Mount Carmel and Holy Name, in North Camden, merge with the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Camden.

About 150 Mount Carmel parishioners staged a "religious procession" Thursday night, marching from the church to the diocesean offices, where they presented a letter to the bishop asking that their parish remain open.

Their church has been a fixture in South Camden for more than 100 years, starting with a largely Italian congregation.

Over the last 50 years, Mount Carmel has transitioned into a largely Latino parish, said Yolanda Aguilar de Nelly, a church trustee. She said the church continues to grow with an influx of Mexican parishioners.

While the church is poor and has had difficulty with its finances, Aguilar de Neely said, many former Italian parishioners who have left the city have been raising money in the last few years to preserve Mount Carmel.

One of the central missions of the church, she said, has been to aid the poor, and parishioners have organized efforts to combat the local drug trade.

"We are the very thing the bishop says that he wants every week in the Catholic Star Herald, our newspaper," Aguilar de Neely said. "He wants active churches, full churches. . . . Everything we read about, we say, 'That's our church.' "

Walton repeated a message he said the bishop had relayed to congregations during a series of meetings he held.

"The church is not about the building or the worship space," he said. "The church is about the people."

The news of the reconfiguration would come about four months after the diocese announced that nine of its 47 elementary schools would be closed in June because of declining enrollment.

The number of students has dropped by a third since 2001, from 14,954 to 10,883, and Galante said 30 of the diocese's elementary schools have fewer than the 225 students needed to maintain one class per grade.

The diocese serves about 500,000 Catholics in Camden, Gloucester, Atlantic, Cape May, Salem and Cumberland Counties.

Contact staff writer Troy Graham at 856-779-3893 or