A shy priest sits munching cookies in the kitchen of an elegant Cleveland park house, glancing out at the sculpture garden now and then. He is nervous about the tape recorder that confronts him on the table. He is exhausted after a day of talking to Washington money people. He yearns to fly back to his own world in Mexico, "to my family."

Across from him, watching and listening, sits the fiftyish divorcee who is about to give it all up, the gorgeous house, the art collection, the fortune, and go to Cuernavaca to live and work for the rest of her life . . .

What brings them together is children: Nearly 1,200 of them, orphans, who live under the care of Father William Wasson in the country near Cuernavac. It's not an orphanage, he says may times. But he never can quite express what is truly is: a community? a way of life?

"John Wayne came to visit us," he says, "and the kids crowded around him as he came up to the hacienda, and he took one little girl on his shoulder, and when he got to the house he was weeping and speechless. Finally he said he had expected orphans to be starved for love, but these kids were so secure that they had love to share."

Wasson is one of those people you meet now and then who burns like a laser through obstacles of officialdom and inertia to achieve actual, palpable good, who is so keenly focused that he seems restless and uncomfortable to someone standing directly in the beam.

Raised in Phoenix, he had studied for the priesthood but had been denied ordination because of poor health. He was operated on for a thyroid condition, went to Mexico to recover, stayed on, and in 1953 was ordained.

One day he caught a 16-year-old poorboy thief in his church. While he was signing the complaint at the Cuernavaca jail he learned that the youth, having no parents or guardian, would be tried as an adult. So he adopted the boy.

hree days latter the police chief sent him eight more boys.

Things began to happen. Someone loaned him and old brewery, a woman brought a bog of oranges, a man sent them an old stove. The boys made tables from leftover doors, knocked together some benches. They slep on the floor.

Steadily the group grew. A year later, in 1955, when a hurricane hit Tampico, Father Wasson hurried over there and collected 35 children from hospitals and jails and streets, talked and airline into ferrying them back to Cuernavaca. The new-comers doubled the population of what Wasson was to call Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos (Our Little Brothers and Sisters).

By now, 4,000 children have gone through the nondenominational Wasson establishment, which includes a 24-hour Montessori school, grammar school and high school. Each children learns at least on skill, and many have become teachers. There are 500 teachers scattered around Mexico today. There are accountants, lawyers, doctors. Each graduate comes back sometime after leaving to give a year service to the school.

"We have just three conditions." Wasson says. "The mother has to be dead and the father dead or gone off. All the brothers and sisters in a family must come (which means some new arrivals are infants, some teenagers), and they must be in dire proverty. Once they're here, they have unconditional acceptance. We never ask them to leave."

The priest's Washington connection is Helen (Leni) Stern, former wife of Philip M. Stern, a department store heir usually described as a philanthropist and author.

Next month, when her youngest daughter, Evie, 16, takes off for the summer, Leni Stern will leave for Cuernavaca. She has donated her David Smith sculpture for what it will bring, and her agent is selling it will bring, and her agent is selling the rest of her considerable collection. (She was a founder of the Washington Museum of Modern Art, is a successful sculpter and writer, has produced a musical comedy.)

"Next year I'll sell the house," she says, "whe Evie's away in school. The other four are already gone - my oldest son is 26. I have enough money so I'm independent, but I'm giving a great deal of it away. I don't feel any pain at all; I'm investing in people, and what could be more wonderful?"

Her friends thought she was crazy, at first. But when they talk to her about it, they come around.

"Here I was, divorced five years and sitting around in this big house with nothing to do. I took anthropology at GW University, and that's where I heard about the Wasson hacienda. Micheal Maccoby (author of "The Gamesmen," the acclaimed study of corporate behavior) is an old friend."

Maccoby and Erich Fromm (who lives in Cuernavaca) praised the Wasson philosphy of child rearing in their book, "Social Character in a Mexican Village." Leni Stern visited the place with some of her children and was overwhelmed.

"I'd studied it for my honors thesis on the socio-psychoanalytic method, and last summer I went there, and those happy faces, I can't tell you. I've lived in the power situation here in Washington, and I've known a lot of people who are afraid to give up something in return. But the more you give, the more you receive."

Her first job will be to learn Spanish, she says. Then she plans to set up a room in the girl's dormitory ("there's this beautiful light, airy room") as her base, a room where the orphans can paint, read, listen to music "and make use of whatever I can give them, the skills I've learned."

She will come back North occassionally to see the children and her Washington friends, but otherwise, she says, her life will center around the orphanage. She is not Catholic. That is not a concern at the hacienda.

Already she has helped Father Bill, as many call him. She bought enough farmland so the group could consolidate its facilities. And she has enlisted her friend Eunice Shriver, who will give a luncheon for the priest next Monday. Meanwhile, she's seeking likely sources for money. The orphanage runs on a $1 million annual budget, and since neither the Mexican government nor the Church in Mexico nor the wealthy Mexicans offer help, Father Wasson spends four months out of five on the road.

"He's begged in airports," she remarks. "He's learned, as I have, that your best chance is with individuals, that institutions aren't interested."

Wasson himself is a stickler for strict accounting, and Price Waterhouse, a major accounting firm, goes over his books every year without charge.

He has been given some money from individuals withins the church, he says. Cardinal Cushing of Boston donated funds for the high school, and Archbishop Wilhelm of Canada has helped, too. But the church as an institution hasn't come through, he adds, being too bureaucratic, too remote from the original Christian simplicity.

Wasson will return to Mexico briefly over the weekend but will return to spend next week here.

As for Leni Stern, she is impatient for June to come.

"People keep talking about sacrifice, but I don't consider it a sacrifice when you give up something good for something much better."

When she first told her children, they didn't think much of the idea. They wanted to know why she couldn't do her work right here and not move to Mexico. But then they started to listen to what their mother was saying, and they talked it over among themselves, and last Christmas they had a special present for her.

"It was a bank, a big toy bank, with wings. They said they'd had a mother and the kids in the orphanage didn't, and so they were giving those kids a present: They were sending me as their present."