Mary E. Rochford, former school superintendent for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, has been given one of the highest honors a lay person can receive from the Vatican.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput announced Thursday that Pope Benedict XVI had named Rochford to the pontifical Order of St. Gregory the Great.

Chaput said the honor recognized Rochford's service to the archdiocese and lay leadership.

Rochford, 59, the first woman to serve as superintendent of schools in the archdiocese, stepped down June 30 after nearly four years.

In a letter to Rochford, Chaput said: "Mary, you are a source of great pride for our archdiocese. Thank you for your service to Jesus Christ and his church. You honor us all."

Rochford said she was stunned when Chaput presented her with the framed and engraved certificate Thursday at the end of a meeting.

"I am extremely humbled and grateful," she said in a brief interview Thursday evening.

According to the archdiocese, the Order of St. Gregory the Great is one of five pontifical knightly orders. It was founded by Pope Gregory XVI in 1831 to honor his sixth-century predecessor. Popes have awarded the order to recognize individuals from all walks of life for their sustained extraordinary service to the church.

In March, Rochford announced she planned to resign to care for family members who could not care for themselves, including her mother, 89, who is in declining health, and a disabled niece.

A former nun, Rochford joined the Office of Catholic Education in 1999 after serving as a Catholic schoolteacher and administrator for more than 25 years.