From his perch atop a lifeguard tower at the Bethesda YMCA, Leonard Cooper says he often thinks back on the bitter odyssey that began six years ago when he left his Birmingham, Ala., home in search of what he called a "beautiful dream."

A devout Catholic from birth, Cooper wanted to become the first black Roman Catholic priest in the history of the Birmingham diocese. And he felt destined to succeed when a minister pointed at him after a rousing three-hour prayer session and emotionally declared: "You are a marked man! The Lord had a lifetime mission for you whether you want it or not."

Today, Cooper's mission is simply watching swimmers by day and listening to gospel music at night. His ambitions for the priesthood were cut short in May 1978 when he was dismissed from a leading American seminary in Indiana.

Church officials say Cooper's fate was his own doing, that he could not adapt to the rigid order at St. Meinrad Seminary, where he tried to change too much too soon. He suffered, they say, from "vocational difficulties." Cooper says he was a victim of racism in the church and discouraged by homosexual advances at school.

But on one point most parties agree: Cooper's experience symbolizes the historic tension dividing the church from many black Catholics, who in recent years have sought to get more blacks into the clergy.

As one black Catholic priest put it: "Here was an Alabama boy with a rich southern religious background coming to an all-white seminary in the Indiana woods. He thought it would be a place where holy men hang out and sainthood would be abundant. Leonard realized that racism existed there, but he was just too young to realize the he couldn't change something today that's been 400 years in the making."

Cooper, 26, was nearing completion of his studies at the University of Alabama when he approached Frank Muscolino, then director of vocations at the Birmingham diocese, about his desire to become a priest.

At the time, there were no black priests in Alabama, despite the fact that 20 percent of the state's black population was Catholic. Nationally, there were 300 black priests out of a total of 58,000. Muscolino said he was excited about the prospect of Cooper entering the priesthood and giving blacks more representation.

"We really went out of our way for Leonard because we need more black representation," Muscolino said. "I understood the difficulties of his background . . . We paid all of his room, board and tuition."

But soon after Cooper arrived in 1976 at the secluded southern Indiana seminary, his relationship with Muscolino and the home diocese soured.

First there were the articles Cooper wrote for the seminary newspaper. Only one of six blacks out of a student entrollment of over 300, Cooper was asked by editors to write a series of stories on racial prejudice in the South.

Cooper wrote about race riots in Birmingham in the 1960s and how "mama would comfort us during the nights when the only sound that could be heard was that of gunshots and explosions."

He also wrote about his religious background in black Birmingham and remembered the white preiests at his church who, during sermons would occasionally say, "God loves you black folk, too."

Finally, he wrote about the emotional power of black spirituals and the church's refusal to allow the music to be sung in many parishes. He expressed dismay that emotional faith, which prompted him to shout "amen" during mass occasionally, was subservient to "rigid rituals."

"For the greater part of my life I have had to rely on the teaching of the Bible from old southern Negroes who seemed to have very little they could depend on but the word of God and the promises thereof," he wrote in a 150-page memoir on his seminary days. "These people seemed to have a deep abiding faith that most of our Ph'D's and OSB's do not have.

"The wisdom and insight of these richly destitute people are given a meager role in the Catholic Church."

Cyprian Davis, Cooper's confessor and spiritual adviser, said the articles prompted hot protests in the seminary community. Some students accused him of heresy, Cooper said.

"There were quite a few ripples," Davis recalled. "The stories did not sit well . . . Leonard was very upset at the reaction."

At the same time Cooper complained to school officials about what he called "rampant homosexuality" at the seminary.

In his memoirs, he described several incidents in which students and monks made advances toward him. He said he was studying late one night in the seminary library and thought he was the only person in the room.

A robed monk suddenly appeared behind him and began "rubbing the nipples on my chest," he said. He said the monk scurried away when another monk, standing behind a bookshelf, discretely coughed.

Thomas Ostick, present rector of the seminary, denied that St. Meinrad's has a problem with homosexuality, saying the campus was no different than any other American college.

"We spoke several times together about his [Cooper's] problems, but to everyone here he seemed like an enigma," Ostick recalled. "You'd ask him what was wrong and he's just say, 'You wouldn't understand.'"

Cooper said when he spoke to Ostick about his experiences with homosexuals, he was told to "stop your bitching," Cooper said.

Cooper's sponsor, Muscolino, meanwhile, was infuriated with the priesthood candidate, Cooper said. During a Birmingham visit Muscolino told him to "change your evil ways" and stop being a "troublemaker," Cooper said.

"From your standpoint it would be wonderful to tie Leonard's problems to local KKK happenings," said Muscolino. "But that's not the way it was. There was nothing racial about it . . . Don't trust him for your own good . . . He needs more internal growth. We tried as best we could with him, but he just kicked us in the face," Muscolino said, before curtly ending a telephone conversation.

Eventually Cooper, whose seminary grades were average, according to school officials, turned away from seminary activities. He skipped mass more and more, saying "it just didn't inspire me or anybody else as far as I could see. There was no joy in worship."

He said he went to Louisville, Ky., public libraries to borrow books on Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and the Soledad Brothers to "learn more about Christianity and less about theology."

He rang up large phone bills commiserating with friends back home, and -- despite specific Muscolino orders to the contrary -- increasingly frequented an all-black parish in Louisville headed by Father Edward B. Branch, a critic of race relations in the church.

"With his background, the seminary just couldn't suit his needs," Branch recalled. "He is an affective believer, not an intellectual. At St. Meinrad students are trained to deal with large, white suburban parishes. So from that point of view, we're dealing with racism.

"The attitude of people in authority is let's see if he works. Let's see if he conforms, if he's a white priest with colored skin."

The biggest problem with Catholic church in the U.S., Branch said, "is that it has swallowed that melting pot thing, hook, line and sinker. The Italians, Irish, Germans and Poles all had cultural slants in their rituals. Everybody except the black folks. We didn't have the black clergy to interpret all this."

Cooper, Branch added, was "injudiciously aggressive. He was serious, black, six foot five and intimidating. He thought gospel music was better for the faith than Georgian chants."

Last May, after about a year and a half at school, Muscolino dismissed Cooper from St. Meinrad because of "vocational crises," and ousted him entirely from the diocesan priesthood program.

Cooper, who as a child taught himself to swim in Birmingham public schools, came to Washington last fall and found a job at the YMCA. He plans to complete his undergraduate theology studies and "preach the gospel, even if it isn't from with the Catholic church."

The news of his dismissal shocked the congregation of Cooper's Our Lady Queen of the Universe Church in Birmingham, according to parish council member Robert Coar.

"Attendance has been falling ever since," Coar said. "The diocese is always talking about the need for black priests. Leonard had it all going for him. Everybody here loved him and encouraged him.

"I think it was pure prejudice," Coar said. "The diocese really doesn't want black clergy."