Lou Tesconi had been in the Catholic seminary two months when he was diagnosed with AIDS.

A newcomer to Washington, the former lawyer sought out a doctor to check several small, purplish lesions on his skin. The diagnosis: Kaposi's sarcoma, a form of cancer often seen in AIDS patients.

That was at 2 p.m. on a Monday. At 8 the following morning, Tesconi was informed that his career with the Catholic Church was ended. Aside from a handful of fellow seminarians who tried to comfort him, Tesconi said, the support he received from the religious order was "lukewarm, at best."

It was his own personal dilemma with AIDS that led Tesconi, 37, to found Damien Ministries, based on the premise that the spiritual needs of people with AIDS are not being met.

"I think you can just assume that when somebody is dying, at least 99 percent of them are going to be wrestling with spiritual questions," Tesconi said. "We try to deal with those needs on a nonsectarian, nonpushy basis."

Damien Ministries opened a four-bed home for women with AIDS in the District on Aug. 2. Its first resident moved in Monday. Two more homes -- one in Prince George's County for men with AIDS and another in Washington for recovering drug addicts who have the disease -- are scheduled to be operating by the end of the month. Tesconi is looking into the possibility of a fourth residence for pediatric AIDS patients, who all too often are being relegated to hospitals.

Most significant, the project has received encouragement from the Washington Catholic Archdiocese, part of a growing recognition by area churches and synagogues that they must play a part in meeting the needs of people with AIDS.

Eleven months after his diagnosis of AIDS, Tesconi said he is "extremely healthy," without even a fever to keep him down. "Creating Damien Ministries has been very life-giving," he added. ::

As the toll from the AIDS epidemic rises -- there have been 1,253 cases in the metropolitan area as of July 23, with the number of new cases in the first six months of this year growing 47 percent faster than in the first half of 1986 -- more and more lives are being touched. The District alone has reported 746 AIDS cases since since 1981. In suburban Maryland, health officials cite 150 cases in Prince George's, 97 in Montgomery County and 14 combined in Charles County and Potomac, Md. In Northern Virginia, Arlington reported 95 AIDS diagnoses as of June 20; Alexandria, 62 cases; Fairfax, 59; Prince William, 6; Loudoun, 4, and Stafford, 2.

On the national political scene, the role of religion in AIDS care and policy has done little but cause controversy. The recent appointment of Cardinal John O'Connor of New York to the president's AIDS panel, for example, has drawn sharp criticism from gays, the group most affected by the disease.

But at the local level, in the Washington area's parishes and synagogues, virtually all denominations have begun to offer money, counseling and housing as they see those needs going unmet.

In Arlington, hospice nurse Cheryl Girard watched the number of AIDS patients double year after year at the Hospice of Northern Virginia. The hospice treated 19 patients with acquired immune deficiency syndrome in 1986, up from nine the year before. While the cost for a typical hospice patient -- from admission to death -- averages $6,000, total care for someone with AIDS is generally half again as expensive. Yet only about 15 percent of the AIDS patients at the facility have any kind of health insurance.

"We saw the numbers of AIDS patients increasing and saw that they had many fewer resources than other hospice patients, and we thought the problem was only going to compound itself," said Girard.

So she sought help from a group that historically has provided the hospice with financial and community support -- area churches.

The result was the Northern Virginia AIDS Ministry, a handful of Episcopal clergy, social workers and health care professionals joined together in a common goal -- to help Northern Virginians learn to live and cope with the frightening epidemic, which, until recently, many perceived as the bane of big cities.

"One of the things the church has always seen itself as offering is salvation," said Robert Trache, rector of Immanuel Church on the Hill in Alexandria and chairman of the newly formed AIDS ministry. Trache sees the ministry as a model for community response to the AIDS crisis, by providing information and counseling services to AIDS victims and others in an atmosphere that is accepting and nonjudgmental. His vision has the support of the Episcopal Diocese in Virginia, which has provided $50,000 to boost the ministry's start-up program.

Because of the nature of the AIDS virus -- it is passed exclusively through blood and sexual contact -- and the general uneasiness toward sexuality that many Americans feel, persons affected with the disease often find that the social and emotional toll it exacts is as devastating as the disease itself.

Besides the Whitman Walker Clinic in Northwest Washington, whose resources and staff are already stretched by the large AIDS population in the city, Northern Virginians have nowhere to turn for everyday assistance on matters ranging from applying for Medicaid eligibility and other financial assistance to getting to and from the health clinic.

The Northern Virginia AIDS Ministry, or NoVAM, officially opened its doors on July 1, with information, counseling and referral services, and an AIDS helpline. In addition, NoVAM plans to raise funds for direct care grants that would assist people with the heavy costs of such things as drugs and visiting nurses, Trache said. He hopes the ministry will also serve as a base from which activists within the social and political community can work to dispel some of the fears and myths surrounding this disease.

NoVAM is not alone in its attempt to nurture a positive relationship between the church and AIDS.

In the District, Augustana Lutheran Church sponsored a benefit concert for AIDS last year to support the work of the Whitman Walker Clinic. Another area Lutheran church, which wished to remain anonymous, provides meeting space for an AIDS support group.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington has developed an informational package for its parishes relating to AIDS ministry. The gist of the handout is that an AIDS crisis exists and the church has a role in providing "compassionate, nonjudgmental care" to those afflicted, explained communications officer Barrett McGurn, "God's children need loving care, and these are God's children."

Catholic Charities also has a resource packet on AIDS education and pastoral counseling. Wesley Methodist Seminary in Northwest recently offered a course on AIDS for seminarians and is planning another one for the fall semester.

The Cedar Lane Unitarian Church in Bethesda recently held a meeting on AIDS for members of its youth group and their parents, in conjunction with the Health Education and Resource Organization (HERO). Similarly, the Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church sponsored an evening program of AIDS information for its congregation.

During the recent Third International AIDS Conference at the Washington Hilton, members of the Quaker Meeting House on Florida Avenue -- blocks from the hotel -- hosted a hospitality suite for people with AIDS attending the meeting.

Also in Washington, a group of about 15 Episcopal churches has founded the Caring Response Committee. Formed last summer, the group helps financially support one of the six AIDS houses run by Whitman Walker. Last Christmas, volunteers distributed gifts to residents in all the homes, and, at Easter, dinner was provided.

In the Jewish community, AIDS education is finding an enthusiastic audience among area congregations. A one-night program on maturity, abstinence and safe sex for teen members of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, one of the major reform groups in Washington, was so successful that a follow-up program for parents attracted more than 150.

Rabbi M. Bruce Lustig, associate rabbi at the Northwest synagogue, said AIDS presents a "precarious situation" for any family because of the social stigma surrounding it, but added that the Reform movement does not discriminate on the basis of sexual preference. "We try to be loving, caring, and to facilitate their {people with AIDS} needs as much as possible. You have to have blinders on not to see these individuals and reach out to them." The National Jewish AIDS Project raised $25,000 for the care of Jewish AIDS patients at a benefit here last fall. The money was divided between Whitman Walker and the Jewish Social Service Agency, which has an existing hospice program that includes AIDS patients.

One group that has remained largely outside the AIDS crisis is the Moslem community. This is a product, according to Abdullah Khouj, of their strong focus on prayer, family, and premarital abstinence. Khouj, director of the Islamic Center on upper Massachusetts Avenue, said he knew of only one case, involving a man hospitalized with AIDS who requested that the center pray for him. Generally speaking, he said, "we never encounter {AIDS}, so we can't talk about it."

To help area religious leaders focus on the disease, the Interfaith Conference in Washington has established a task force to develop a broad theological response to AIDS. "What we are trying to do is say we recognize and respect certain traditions in dealing with human sexuality . . . but our primary concern is that there is a community of suffering out there," said the Rev. Canon Kwasi Thornell, canon missioner of the Washington Cathedral and chairman of the Interfaith Conference.

The task force also is preparing a resource guide on AIDS for religious groups. An ecumenical worship service, devoted to AIDS, is being planned for September in the District.

Dr. John Fletcher, chief of the bioethics program at the Biomedical Clinic at the National Institutes of Health and an ordained Episcopal minister, said he sees a "progression in religious leaders, along with the rest of the country, to realize that it's time to lay aside ideas that someone needs to be punished" because of his life style. Fletcher noted that when he first spoke with clergy on the AIDS issue four years ago, he was "booed" for suggesting that "ideas attributing AIDS to divine retribution are no better now than they were in biblical times and that the churches must learn to be specialists in forgiveness."

Central to the churches' hesitancy in providing social leadership on AIDS has been the issue of sexuality, which has surrounded the virus's history since its emergence within the homosexual community. Having survived the sexual revolution of the 1960s and '70s, churches, nonetheless, have been forced to reevaluate longstanding moral codes regarding what is ethically desirable in human sexuality. Confronted with their own uncertainty, said Fletcher, many churches "may not have the confidence to step out and take leadership on AIDS.

"America has not had sufficient ethics to deal with AIDS," said the Rev. Bernard Brown of Georgetown University. "Denial, fear and avoidance, both in the individual patient and in society, mount as quickly as the epidemic."

The dual challenge of accepting homosexuals and intravenous drug abusers, another major AIDS group, "is something many churches are finding hard to embrace," said the Rev. Thornell of the Interfaith Conference. Now, with the slow spread of AIDS to the heterosexual population -- a spread that many experts believe will continue over the next decade -- the issue again, for many in the church, is promiscuity. Since AIDS is considered, with few exceptions, to be preventable, some within the religious community still view the disease as a kind of divine retribution for wrongful living, said Thornell. "They feel they can't or won't respond" to those who are being afflicted by AIDS, he added.

"Nobody wants to admit that they have homosexuals and drug users in their midst," said Judy Bowes of the Community of Hagar, an Episcopal group in Washington's Palisades area that runs a nonsectarian program for people who come from out of town to be near loved ones with AIDS.

The church also conducts funerals for victims of the disease who had not been affiliated with any religious group in the Washington area.For Cheryl Girard, who has cared for AIDS patients at the Hospice of Northern Virginia and has observed both their physical decline and their emotional and social isolation, the Northern Virginia AIDS Ministry offers a unique opportunity for a community to respond to the AIDS situation.

"The thing that really energizes me is that I see this community really making a response to its own members, providing the kinds of services a neighbor would provide for another. And that's the first step toward breaking down the fear about AIDS."Meg Bryant is a free-lance writer and editor in Arlington. Where to Turn

These religious organizations offer counseling and other assistance to AIDS patients: Damien Ministries, 387-2926. Catholic Charities AIDS Program, 269-3312. Northern Virginia AIDS Ministry: helpline, 751-5500, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday to Friday, and answered by a machine at other times; to volunteer, 751-5520. Episcopal Caring Response Committee, 797-7698; to volunteer, 387-0098. National Jewish AIDS Project, 387-3097.