One comment seemed especially appropriate after surveying the crowd, 2,500 strong, that gathered yesterday for the funeral of the Rev. Gilbert V. Hartke, founder of the Speech and Drama Department of Catholic University:

"What a house," said William H. Graham, who succeeded Hartke as head of the drama department, of the crowd at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. "And it's filled. It's only fitting that it's a house of God. He would have wanted it that way."

Those who knew Hartke say he would have been pleased with the full house. Hartke, who died last Friday at the age of 79, was eulogized as a pioneer of the Washington theater and a mentor to drama students.

He was also a piece of theater unto himself.

"Outwardly debonair, flamboyant, stage-center . . . an ecclesiastical supersalesman, a bit vain," said the Rev. Gilbert Graham in his homily about Hartke, whom Graham first met as an undergraduate at Catholic University in 1939. Graham, who starred in Hartke's first theater success, "Yankee Doodle Boy," was inspired by him to become a Dominican priest. When he did, he took the religious name "Gilbert."

Hartke was also remembered as the man who encouraged and cajoled fledgling actors. "He was always going out of his way to find financial help for people and support other than financial," said actress Halo Wines before the mass. Wines, a member of the Arena Stage company, earned a master's degree at CU. She and her husband, Arena actor Richard Bauer, were married by Hartke. "He's always been a member of the family," Wines said.

Most in the crowd could bear testimony to all the different facets of Hartke's persona. In addition to Hartke's family, there were actors, current and former drama students, doyens of the Washington cultural scene, an admiral (James Watkins, chief of naval operations), a psychic (Jeane Dixon), and two restaurateurs -- Duke Zeibert and Mel Krupin, of whose downtown "power lunch" establishments Hartke was a fixture.

Even the high mass was something of a pageant. It began with a procession of 150 priests to the sanctuary of the church, followed by robed faculty members of Catholic University and an honor guard of plumed members of the Knights of Columbus. Presiding over the mass was the Rev. James A. Hickey, archbishop of Washington; the Rev. Raymond Daley, Hartke's Dominican superior, and the Rev. William J. Byron, president of Catholic University, were the main celebrants. The Dominican House of Studies choir sang in Latin and English.

Hartke's former students came from all over the country, some arriving at the shrine with overnight bags in tow.

"I've been thinking about this all week -- what was the power of this man?" said Jim Petosa, 31, a CU graduate and now the general manager of the National Players, the professional touring group of drama graduates that Hartke started in 1949. "When Father first met me, I was 17 years old. Without him, I could not be doing what I'm doing. He said, 'Believe in your creativity. I'll give you the blind faith to do what you want to do.' And he did that for hundreds of people."

Bill Graham, the 29-year-old son of Hartke's successor at CU, sees his life intricately linked with Hartke.

"He married my parents, he baptized me," said Graham, a CU graduate who is now managing director of the Olney Theatre, affiliated with the CU drama department since the early 1950s.

"I went to Europe with him three times," Graham said. "Father Hartke is the one who's pushed me like crazy. My father's had very little influence on my career. He doesn't favor nepotism."

CU alumnus Jane Summerhays, who lives in New York, came to the funeral with her husband and two classmates: Cynthia Griffin, a New York actress and playwright, and Crystal Gravely, who lives in Virginia.

"I'm an actress working in New York," said Summerhays. "He was like a second father to me. My parents didn't want me going into theater and they cut me off. Father was there for me. I owe a lot to him." Hartke used to come to New York to see her in plays.

Summerhays, Griffin and Gravely told of Hartke remembering little details of their lives even as freshmen and tending to them like family -- bringing sweet rolls to play rehearsals and treating the 40 or so drama students in their class to monthly steak dinners at Duke Zeibert's.

And someone else in the restaurant would just happen to pick up the tab: "It always happened that way," laughed Griffin. "Like faith."

Gravely met her future husband on a European theatrical tour arranged by Hartke -- "and Father took full credit for it." Gravely, a Protestant, arranged for Hartke to read at her wedding. "She gave him a part," chuckled Griffin.

After the mass, William Graham singled out these Hartke qualities: "The perseverance of his faith and vision I want to take from him. I'd also like to take from him his memory for names. All those priests who were up there today -- Father Hartke probably could have named every one of them."