First warning that he has "no magic wands," Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph Califano pledged yesterday "to take every step necessary" to bring about the resurrection of St. Elizabeths Hospital and the District's entire mental health care system.

While he said he would bring to bear all the HEW resources available to accomplish the task, Califano warned that "it may take years, decades, to transfer St. Elizabeth to the District. It better take (only) months, or a couple of years, to get this place accredited."

Califano was at St. Elizabeths yesterday morning to announce the naming of a new director for the troubled institution, the first of several major steps Califano said last month he would take toward reforming St. Elizabeths.

When Charles E. Meredith, a mental health administrator from Augusta, Maine, takes control of the 2,300 patient federal hospital Nov. 1, he will find an institution which is overcrowded, understaffed an in need of an estimated $80 million to bring it to the point where it can regain the accreditation of the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Hospitals.

In addition to serving the 2,300 inpatients, St. Elizabeths also serves more than 2,500 out-patients. About 75 per cent of all patients are residents of the District.

At the same time he announced the appointment of Meredith, Califano confirmed reports that James Buford, director of the Department of Health and Welfare in Newark, N.J., has been appointed to act as Califano's personal representative at St. Elizabeths and coordinator of District, federal and hospital efforts to upgrade the institution.

Califano also told the more than 750 hospital staff members who heard his remarks that three joint federal-District task forces are already at work:

Evaluating every St. Elizabeths patient to "provide us for the first time with accurate and comprehensive data about the number of beds and type of facility" needed;

Reviewing existing and potential out-patient facilities toward a view of placing more and more patients in the community as they and the community can handle such a move;

Estimating the proper size and scope "of a revitalized St. Elizabeths, to renovate it to a size consistent with the needs . . . A large in-patient facility with empty beds would be an unnecessary drain on the budget of HEW and eventually on the District treasury," Califano said.

Califano had repeated kind remarks yesterday for Rep. Charles Diggs (D-Mich.), chairman of the House District Committee, and Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D-D.C), who shared the stage with him.

Calling Diggs "one of the best things that ever happened to the District in the Congress of the United States," the HEW secretary returned again and again to the theme that the effort to restore St. Elizabeths to its former position of national leadership in the psychiatric field would take the cooperation and help of Congress, which must appropriate the tens of millions of dollars for the effort.

Califano told the assembled staff members that the first heard of the hospital from his father-in-law, a psychiatrist in Massachusetts. "This was the place he talked about. This was the place where he, a practicing psychiatrist in a town of about 50,000 people, was able to come to consult with the best, to learn about what was new and get a good sense of what was first rate . . .

"In those days St. Elizabeths served as a model for in-patient psychiatric facilities. But that is not so today," said Califano, who added later that "I will give us the resources" to turn the hospital around.

"I ask each and every one of you to work with me toward again making St. Elizabeths Hospital one of the finest hospitals of its kind in the field of treating training and research," said Califano.