The Rev. Gilbert V. Hartke, 79, a Dominican priest who founded the Department of Speech and Drama at Catholic University almost 50 years ago and built it into one of the foremost community and regional theater programs in the nation, died yesterday at Providence Hospital. He had suffered several heart attacks.

Father Hartke was a figure of legendary stature in the Washington theater community, but his influence and reputation extended far beyond this area.

More than anyone else, he was responsible for the building in 1970 of Catholic University's 590-seat Hartke Theatre in Northeast Washington. Such world-class theatrical figures as Helen Hayes, Cyril Ritchard and the Abbey Players have performed there over the years.

He created the National Players, a professional theatrical troupe of Catholic University drama graduates that since 1949 has played to audiences throughout the United States and in other countries ranging from China to Romania.

He was chairman of the Department of Speech and Drama from its founding in 1937 until he retired officially in 1974 to become professor emeritus of drama and special assistant to the president of the university. In fact, he remained the guiding force behind the university's drama program until he died.

His students over the years included Jerome Ragni, coauthor of the rock musical "Hair;" Mart Crowley, who wrote "The Boys in the Band;" John Pielmeier, author of "Agnes of God," and Jason Miller, who won a Pulitzer Prize for "That Championship Season." Drama critic Walter Kerr, television announcer Ed McMahon, directors Alan Schneider and Robert Moore, and actors Jon Voight, John McGiver and George Grizzard participated in Father Hartke's program as did Richard Bauer and Halo Wines of Washington's Arena Stage.

The Catholic drama department has produced more than 600 plays. The Olney Theatre in Montgomery County, an Actors Equity summer theater company organized in 1953 that has been designated as Maryland's State Summer Theatre, is an offshoot of Father Hartke's efforts in the speech and drama program at Catholic, as is the St. Michaels Playhouse in Vermont.

An imposing block of a man with a majestic head of white hair, Father Hartke was very much the man about town who seemed to turn up everywhere and know everyone, and his haunts ranged from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to Mel Krupin's restaurant on Connecticut Avenue, where his picture hangs on the wall with those of other celebrities who dine there regularly.

He was comfortable at the White House, where he was received and commended by presidents for more than three decades of his students' dramatic performances overseas on behalf of a variety of government programs and agencies. And he was comfortable among Washington Redskins football players, who once critiqued "Sis Boom Bah," a musical of which he was coauthor. When he developed a case of water on the knee -- the "nun's disease," he called it, from years of kneeling in prayer -- he was treated by Dr. Stan Lavine, longtime Redskins physician.

William H. Graham, who succeeded him as head of the drama department, said Father Hartke had "the wonderful combination of being very much a part of the world in which he lived and knowing how it operated, and a deep and abiding religious faith."

Not surprisingly, many of his program's graduates were unable to find careers in the highly competitive theater business. But Father Hartke always insisted that training in drama is a solid educational foundation for a variety of endeavors. "What's more important is that they have great careers in life," he once said. He took particular delight in the fact that a few of his students each year would opt for a career in religious life. "In a sense, this program was his parish," said Graham.

In 1952 President Truman asked him to organize a delegation of actors to entertain soldiers in Korea, and in subsequent years he led Catholic University theatrical troupes to military installations in the Arctic, Japan, France and Germany and to Taiwan, the Sinai Penninsula, Italy, Holland and Belgium.

He sent a production to South America in 1958 under State Department auspices, and he took Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!" to Israel and six European countries in 1965 under a similar program. In May 1974 he directed a production of "Ah, Wilderness!" that played in Romania, and since 1969 teams of his drama students have taught and performed in Poland.

Helen Hayes, a native Washingtonian, was a friend of Father Hartke for 35 years since having sought solace in the Church after the death of her daughter from infantile paralysis at the age of 19. In several appearances as a guest actress in Catholic University productions, she stayed in the dormitories with the students, and she made the last stage appearance of her career at the Hartke Theatre in 1971 as the Irish, convent-bred Mary Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night."

As a young man in the Midwest, Father Hartke got to know Orson Welles when Welles was just beginning to produce theater in the suburbs of Chicago. In the fall of 1937 Welles spoke to the first class of drama students at Catholic University about the possibility of adapting Shakespeare to various forms of staging, and he subsequently became a major influence on the experimental productions that formed the basis of the Catholic University program.

Gilbert Vincent Hartke was born Jan. 16, 1907, one of five sons and four daughters, in a Chicago neighborhood where his father owned a drugstore near a pre-Hollywood film company. Before he was 7 years old he was acting in two-reel films, and he said several years later that he liked it so well "that by the time I was in the eighth grade I had decided on a career in show business."

But he was also drawn to the church. "From the time of my first communion I went to mass every day and often served as altar boy. It gave me a sense of completeness. It was so right for me." By the time he was 7, he recalled almost 70 years later, "I recognized that God wanted me to be a priest."

He played football in high school, attended Providence College, then joined the Order of Preachers, also known as the Dominicans, because that was where he thought his speaking and dramatic skills could best be used. During his first year of seminary training the Dominicans put him in charge of the production of six plays.

In 1936, the year he was ordained, he came to Catholic University to study for a master's degree in English. The following year, when the university decided it wanted a department of speech and drama, it asked the 30-year-old Father Hartke -- who at the time was said to resemble Clark Gable -- to organize it.

The intent was simply the improvement of common speech and the recognition of drama through the production of classical plays, and the development of playwrights. During the early years the quarters were makeshift and the productions predominantly one-act plays. By the summer of 1938 Father Hartke had persuaded Sara Allgood, the Abbey Theatre favorite who had just captivated New York in "Shadow and Substance," to come to Washington as his first guest actress.

Not until after World War II did the department get its own theater building and then only when Father Hartke located a condemned military theater at a naval base in Norfolk. He purchased it from the government for a dollar and arranged to have it hauled to Washington where it was reassembled and served as the university theater for 20 years. On Ash Wednesday in 1967 its roof caved in under a heavy snowfall, and the Speech and Drama Department moved once again to temporary quarters until the opening of the Hartke Theatre three years later.

Almost 2,500 students have gone through the program in speech and drama at Catholic University since 1937, and in that period Father Hartke has functioned as an administrator, director, actor, teacher, author and, more recently, unofficial patron saint.

"God's work includes striving for personal excellence," he said once. "The wonderful thing about the performing arts is that it is yourself against perfection. You have to be as perfect as you can, whether you act, write, produce, direct or design. You aren't in competition with another show or medium, you are in competition with yourself."

Father Hartke's survivors include one sister, Berenice E. Hartke of Chicago.