A widely respected priest who has developed and directed most of the Roman Catholic Church's services to poor and destitute people in the Arlington diocese has been fired by Bishop Thomas J. Welsh.

The Rev. Joh Adams, 35, was dismissed as director of Christ House in Alexandria and told to find employment in another diocese, apparently because he failed to consult frequently enough with his superiors.

The priest, who has been on the job here for five years, said he had received neither warnings nor criticism of his work before being fired by the bishop on March 30.

On the contrary, the Christ House shelter he ran for homeless and destitute persons won accolades from church officials and frequent praise in diocesan and Washington area publications. Parish groups throughout the diocese contribute volunteers for the center's programs as well as money and supplies including the free meals that are available each evening.

The 10 salaried staff members of Christ House and an adjunct program for senior citizens, also directed by Father Adams, have all resigned in protest against the priest's firing. They have appealed to the more than 200 volunteers active in the Christ House work to join them in developing a new center to carry on the same kind of activities, but independent of the Arlington diocese.

Bishop Welsh came to the Arlington diocese nearly four years ago and quicly established a reputation as an old-style by-the-book prelate.

The bishop has refused to give any reasons for Father Adam's removal, either to fellow priests in the diocese and Christ House staff members who protested the firing or to reporters, saying only that it was "a personal matter between a priest and his bishop."

The bishop's official spokesman, Leonard Reed, acknowledged that the bishop has not faulted Father Adams' performance. "As a matter of fact he's done fine work," Reed volunteered.

Diocesan officials linked Father Adams' dismissal to an application filed by the priest two years ago to transfer his priestly status from the Claretion order, in which he was trained, into the Arlington diocese - a process called incardination.

Although Bishop Welsh refused to accept Father Adams as a priest of the Arlington diocese, he gave him a letter of recommendation and " is prepared to assist Father Adams to relocate" to another diocese, Reed said.

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops more than a decade ago established national norms for the establishment of due process procedures to adjudicate diferences between priests and bishops, but no such procedure exists in the Arlington diocese.

Father Adams said he believes he was fired because the bishop felt he was "too independent." He said the bishop's letter of reference given him the day after he was fired "said I was 'creative and imaginative but preferred to work alone.'"

Father Adams challenged the bishop's characterization. "I disagree," he said. "I work with a staff of 10 and 200 volunteers."

Father Adams' immediate superior, Msgr. Frank Hendrick, diocesan director of Catholic Charities, declined to comment on the reason for the firing, saying, "The bishop has to make the dicisions." He did say, however that "some of his (Adams') priest friends say that he may have been a free spirit."

Msgr. Hendrick, too, agreed that the priest "has done a lot of good things. But this happens, like in the military - a man gets the medal but he still gets transferred."

Asked if he had any conflicts with Father Adams, the Catholic Charities head responded, "No. I tried to live above the conflicts."

Richard Gerloch, assistant director of Christ House, praised Father Adams as "a man who works 12 hours a day, seven days a week" to cope with the problems of the destitute who come his way.

Both Gerlock and Father Adams maintained that what conflict there had been in the past had been minor. "We knew we were in a conservative diocese so we watched out step," said Gerloch.

Father Adams has spun off a number of programs and institutions from theoriginal Christ House. These include a home visitation program for isolated elderly perons, cooperative food-buying clubs to help poor people buy groceries with food stamps at wholesale prices, a day care center for welfare mothers trying to learn new job skills and a therapeutic group home for troubled teen-age boys.

He has organized much of the financing for most of these ventures by tapping existing federal and local funding programs, by raising money and material support from a growing list of supporters and by other methods, including the operation of thrift shops.

Both Reed, the spokesman for Bishop Welsh, and Msgr. Hendrick said the diocese would take steps to keep the programs running. Father Adams had some doubts: "I don't think there are that many people who want to do this kind of work," he said.

Reed said Father Adams had been invited to serve on the committee to search for his successor.