Cardinal Justin Rigali yesterday said he was "very optimistic" about the future of Catholic education in the Philadelphia Archdiocese after naming a Blue Ribbon Commission to produce a plan to strengthen the school system.

Rigali said he expects the commission's work to create "a renewed enthusiasm" for Catholic education, rather than creating fear among parents that more Catholic schools would close.

Catholic schools in the Archdiocese have seen declining enrollments for more than a decade. Two Philadelphia Catholic high schools, Cardinal Dougherty and Northeast Catholic, were forced to close after last school year.

Cardinal Dougherty, at 2nd Street and Godfrey Avenue, in Olney, and Northeast Catholic, at Torresdale and Erie avenues, in Frankford, once had among the largest student populations in the country. But officials last year described them as "half-empty."

The Archdiocese has 167 elementary schools in its five-county region, with a total enrollment of 51,353 pupils. Its 17 high schools have a total enrollment of 16,502.

Last year, archdiocesan officials cited Catholic families moving out of the city as one cause for low enrollments in city Catholic schools, as well as competition from charter schools, which don't charge tuition.

Rigali yesterday kept his focus on a positive future for Catholic schools and said the commission would guide the Office of Catholic Education.

"They are well-respected leaders committed to Catholic education and have generously agreed to contribute their time, energy, creativity and knowledge to develop a strategic plan to assure the sustainability of Catholic education in this Archdiocese," Rigali said.

The group, made up of men and women with expertise in Catholic education and business and finance, will begin work Jan. 5. Rigali said he hopes for a report by next fall.

Rigali named John Quindlen, a retired senior vice president and chief financial officer for DuPont, as commission chair. Quindlen is also a former member of the board of trustees at Villanova University and former chairman of the archdiocesan school board.

"Not everyone is going to be pleased. There will be some difficult decisions to be made," said commission member Sister Patricia Fadden, president of Immaculata University and chair of the archdiocesan school board. "But the overall outcome is going to be positive for Catholic education."


A story in yesterday's Daily News incorrectly reported the number of Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The correct number is 17.