The wife of one of the nation's top labor leaders had been collecting unemployment benefits from the District of Columbia since May when she was discharged from a secretarial job at the headquarters of her husband's union.

Patti Church, 24-year-old wife of United Mine Workers President Sam Church, 43, said yesterday she is receiving $123 a week and defended her action as proper.

Church, who was paid $61,000 last year as president of the 240,000-member union and has a chauffer-driven limousine at his disposal, could not be reached for comment on the payments, first disclosed by a Charleston, W.Va., newspaper.

"It's ridiculous for anyone to suggest I should not receice this money," said Patti Church in a telephone interview from the couple's suburban Virginia home. "I worked for Mine Workers for five years and I paid taxes like everybody else and I'm entitled to it."

"Collecting unemployment was against everything I ever believed in," said Church who earned $12,000 as a secretary to a union official. "There are a lot of coal miners who collect unemployment and I know a lot of those men who have wives who work."

The Churches were married in 1978, more than two years after Patti Church began working for the union. Her husband ascended the presidency of the union last year, after Arnold Miller retired due to failing health.

Ironically, Patti Church says, it was her husband who terminated her last spring.

When Sam Church became president he hired a consulting firm to study staffing levels at the union headquarters, located on 15 Street NW off McPherson Square. The consultant recommended that 10 secretaries be discharged and on the basis of seniority Patti Church was one of them.

A union spokesman said that the Charleston Daily Mail's story had received interest in West Virginia, which has a large number of coal miners subject to perodic layoffs.

"Anyone who thinks she isn't entitled to the money is advocating taking women's lib back 100 years," said spokesman Elton Callen.