Richard McCarron, who began his 46-year education career with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia teaching English at a high school in Frankford and rose to the top lay position in the Office of Catholic Education, will retire Feb. 1, the archdiocese announced Monday.

McCarron, who spent 25 years as superintendent or secretary for Catholic education, said in a statement, "It is time for me to step down so that new leadership can guide and direct the mission of Catholic education."

In an interview Monday, he said he had been mulling retirement for some time. "I'm starting to feel my age," said McCarron, who will be 69 in January.

Since being named education secretary in 2002, McCarron has been the top administrator for Catholic elementary schools, high schools, and special education schools in the five-county region.

McCarron's retirement comes as the archdiocese continues to transform the landscape of Catholic education. Several elementary schools were closed or merged in June, and the archdiocese turned the management of its high schools and special education schools over to the Faith in the Future Foundation.

The independent foundation was created last spring to raise funds and boost enrollment after a fund-raising campaign helped keep four of the 17 high schools from closing.

"I have the utmost confidence that the Office of Catholic Education and Faith in the Future will establish a new educational vision that will enable our schools to grow and flourish in the years ahead," McCarron said.

"Dr. McCarron has had a profound influence on Catholic education in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for more than a quarter of a century, and his leadership has been defined by an abiding commitment to our students, families, administrators, and teachers," said Bishop Michael J. Fitzgerald, who oversees Catholic education in the archdiocese.

Rita Schwartz, president of the union that represents the 700 lay teachers at the archdiocesan high schools, said she was surprised when McCarron called her Monday to tell her he was retiring. She said the two had faced each other across the bargaining table to negotiate teachers' contracts since 1991.

"We've had some go-rounds," she said, "but we have always been able to keep it from getting personal. I think he has done a good job in some very strange times."

McCarron, who graduated from La Salle University with an English degree in 1966, began teaching that subject a few months later at Northeast Catholic High School High School. He later became chairman of the English department.

In 1979, at the archdiocese's request, McCarron transferred to Cardinal O'Hara High School in Springfield, Delaware County, to chair the English department there.

He became director of secondary school curriculum and instruction in 1986, and was named superintendent in 1990.

McCarron will remain in his post while the archdiocese begins a national search for his successor. Then, McCarron said, he will become a consultant with an office at the archdiocese's Center City headquarters on North 17th Street.

Samuel Casey Carter, chief executive officer of the Faith in the Future Foundation, said the foundation would work with the archdiocese and a selection committee "to identify, interview, and select a candidate" to succeed McCarron.

Contact Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or martha.woodall@phillynews.com