Taped to the wall above the maps of Central and South America are words made of cut-out letters like a display in an elementary school: PAZ (peace), JUSTICIA (justice), and in an arch above the door of the employment office, AMOR (love).

The furniture is old and battered, and like the wall decorations, looks as if it were, collected bit by bit, just the need arose.

People come here, to the Spanish Catholic Center at 3055 Mount Pleasant St. NW. from all over Latin America and, indeed, the world. They come from Guatemala and Nicaragua and El Salvador, from Cuba and Santa Domingo, from Lima, and Beunos Aires and Rio de Janeiro - places as different as the different colors on the maps.

hey may have arrived in this country 20 years ago or yesterday. They may be here with legal visas. or without - no such questions are asked.Most speak English poorly, if at all, and - far from home, set apart from the culture that now surrounds them - they become in the most literal sense of the word, alienated.

So they took for familiar sights and sounds: the Latin community of Adams Morgan and Mount Pleasant, the services offered by the Catholic Center and other organizations. And they turn naturally for guidance to the center's director - a Franciscan friar who wears the familiar long brown habit sandals and pointed hood of the Capuchin order - Father Sean O'Malley.

They call him Padre Sean.

"Didn't you know there's a long line of El Salvadoreans named O'Malley?" He laughs and shakes his head.

"No, actually I'm from Lakewood, near Cleveland, Ohio. The people who come here, many of them are poor and have little education. They don't see anything strange about my name.

"I don't speak Spanish with an accent, and a lot of them think I'm from Spain."

It's an idea that obviously appeals to him. Though he speaks warmly of his Midwestern origins - "There are four brothers and sisters, but it's a big Irish family with lots of aunts and uncles and cousins" - he has had a desire all his adult life to work in Latin America.

Instead he has stayed in Washington, in Adams Morgan, a kind of microcosm of the Hispanic World. It is commonly estimated that there are over 100,000 Central and South Americans in the Washington metropolitan area, and O'Malley has become one of their most visible and influential leaders.

In the nearly six years that he has been its director, the Catholic Center has come to offer the services of medical and dental clinics and a social workers, a youth program, educational programs and an employment service, with a hardworking staff of volunteers and nuns to help.

"But so many problems come up that direct services dont't meet," says O'Malley. "Employment, housing, immigration - the problems are so gigantic and they have so many complexities."

O'Malley and the people of te center are used by the community as troubleshooters for just about all these problems. They are the first, as well as the last resort. "When they can't think of anybody else to call, they call us. We had a Romanian refugee sent over to us by the Catholic Immigration Service, and occasionally we get drunken Greek sailors . . ."O'Malley laughs a little wearily.

"The man runs around like crazy," says one of his associates. "He's always at meetings, at a mass, or burying or marrying somebody."

When a mass was said at St. Matthew's Cathedral to honor the memory and protest the slaying of Nicaraguan publisher Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, it was O'Malley who presided at the service.

Chamorro was not the only person in Nicaragua to attack the regime of President Somoza. "Members of my order, Capuchins, have had run-ins with him as well. One came to Washington to testify about conditions there, and was held incommunicado for several days after his return, before finally being thrown out of the country," O'Malley said.

O'Malley is not popular with the 'international' community here, says Richard Gutierrez, director of the legal aid service Ayuda. He has worked with O'Malley to try to help domestic workers brought here by members of the diplomatic community and exploited as virtual indentured servants.

"In the diplomatic circles we are sort of looked on as troublemakers," O'Malley says with a faint note of pride. He is currently helping to organize many of these domestics into an association.

"We're hoping that the association will be feared," he says, laughing easily. "We just sent Sister Manuela (of the center's employment service) to a house last night to 'bring somebody out,' as we say.

"You can't understand the fear that these women have. To get in a cab or a bus and go away from the place where they've worked - especially when their employer is telling them that they can't do it - that he will rip up their passports or take reprisals agains their families back home.

"We help to educate them; tell them their rights. But there are many, I'm sure who are afraid to come to us."

Even for those who have some mobility and freedom, the strain of living a life divided between cultures is sometimes too much to endure.

O'Malley was recently called to an exclusive private school to help a woman who had wandered in from the street. She was muttering incoherently in Spanish. The people at the school couldn't think of anyone else to call.

The school was far from Adams Morgan, in an affluent neighborhood, and the boys in their coats and ties frankly started at the man, striding firmly through their halls in the clothes of a monk, searching for the woman.

Finally he found her in a barewalled room deep inside the school. She sat quietly on a battered sofa, moving her head slowly to see him as he came in, her cheeks wet with tears. She moved as if every muscle ached; as if she hadn't slept for days.

Padre Sean knew her. He had seen her at the Capilla Latina on Sundays when he held masses there. He pulled a chair up near her to talk.

She had been in this country for several years now, working as a house keeper. But her husband and oldest son had been left behind in South America.

This pattern of divided families as commonplace in Washington's Latin communities. "The population is much heavier on the distaff side," as O'Malley puts it, "because it is so much easier for women to enter this country legally than men."

The woman had recently returned to her country to visit her husband and oldest son. It had not been a happy reunion, and when she came back to Washington she found herself without a job and with only $10 left in her pocket.

Now she was hearing voices that told her to seek holy water. She had come into the school searching for it. The voices told her she was going to die. Again and again she broke into tears.

O'Malley would comfort her with his low, sooting voice. "Si, Si" he would say, "Muchos problemas." Many problems.

For brief moments she regained enough composure to tell O'Malley that her young son would be getting out of school in just a couple of hours. Who would take care of him?

O'Malley took the woman to Andromeda, a mental health clinic, where she stayed for a few hours before being admitted to St. Elizabeths.

That afternoon Padre Sean and Sister Hilaria arranged for the woman's child to be picked up at school, and a family was found in the building where the boy lived to take care of him.

But there is a worry among some leaders in Adams Morgan that O'Malley and the center take care of too much.

When the tenants of the Kenesaw Building were threatened with eviction and decided to form a cooperative, they elected O'Malley president. At the meetings he runs. If he makes his preferences clear, there is not much doubt how the cooperative will vote.

"Which is why I really shouldn't be president," says O'Malley, well aware of the problem. "I should be trying to foment leadership, rather than assuming the role myself."

But, then, there is so much to do - legal battles to be fought, money to be raised, walls to be won back from graffiti with soap and paint. Much of the cooperative's work is done by other members and other service organizations. But when someone had to be named No. 1, people simply insisted on O'Malley. He couldn't refuse.

A young man who has lived in this country illegally for over 10 years tried explain how people feel about O'Malley in his community. "The life here is not so bad, really. You just keep in mind what your limits are.

"There is a resignation when people come to this country because they know they must leave their beloved ones. But there is loneliness and fear, yes.

"At first when Padre Sean came, people were a little afraid to talk to him . . . But afterward, they love him."