The massive front doors of the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle were bordered in crimson bunting and a black funeral wreath yesterday as hundreds of Catholics paid their respects to Cardinal James A. Hickey, whose body lay in the front of the nave for public viewing.

After signing a large condolence book and picking up a prayer card with a picture of a smiling Hickey, the visitors walked down the center aisle to his open mahogany coffin.

The viewing at the Northwest Washington church was the first of several memorial events over three days that will end tomorrow with a 10:30 a.m. funeral Mass. Hickey, head of the Washington Archdiocese from 1980 to 2000, died Sunday at 84 after several years of declining health.

"While he was in office here, he did a very good job overall," said lawyer Michael Loftus of Potomac, who was among those visiting the cathedral. "He certainly reached out to the less fortunate in our society and was very conscious of their plight and did what he could to improve it."

Anna Lopez of Silver Spring, who described herself as "a product of the Catholic school system," also came to view Hickey's body. "The work that he did for education and the poor in this area," she said, "will far outlive him."

Dressed in a white miter and the same white vestments he wore when he was ordained a bishop in 1967, Hickey lay with his feet toward the pews, the customary position for deceased Roman Catholic clergy.

As he had requested, his hands were entwined with a rosary that had been owned by his mother, and he wore a ring given him by Pope John Paul II. Beneath Hickey's hands was a prayer card from his 1946 ordination with a quote from St. Paul, "God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ."

Two stone-faced Knights of Columbus, wearing their traditional plumed hats, stood on either side of the coffin as honorary guards. The Knights are a fraternity of Catholic laymen.

Among the visitors were about 50 student from Cardinal Hickey Academy in Dunkirk, an elementary school founded by Hickey in 1997.

Eight members of Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of religious women, also paid their respects. The nuns, who wore gray veils and black coats, cared for Hickey in his last year, when he was living at Jeanne Jugan Residence in Northeast Washington.

The viewing began after Hickey's unadorned coffin was formally received at the church door by his successor, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, who sprinkled it with holy water.

Midday Mass, celebrated by McCarrick, attracted about double the normal number of congregants. McCarrick told the congregation that its prayers should include "thanksgiving for the life and work of our former archbishop."

A small choir of seminarians from the Theological College at Catholic University sang at the Mass, during which Hickey's coffin was turned 90 degrees so that it was sideways to the altar. Afterward, about 60 people formed two lines as they waited to spend a moment in prayer at the coffin.

Celebrating the Mass with McCarrick was the Rev. Barry Knestout, Hickey's priest secretary from 1994 until the cardinal stepped down as head of the archdiocese. After that, Knestout helped care for Hickey.

"If anyone was prepared for meeting our Lord, it certainly was the cardinal," said Knestout, who recently became pastor of St. John the Evangelist in Silver Spring.

"The same experiences that any of us have in terms of facing our own mortality, I would think he had the same kinds of struggles with that that any of us do," Knestout added. "But again, he had a . . . profound faith, so I'm confident that he was ready."

The public viewing lasted until 5:30 p.m., when a vigil Mass of the Dead was attended by about 500 members of Catholic religious orders. Boston Archbishop Sean O'Malley, a Capuchin Franciscan who worked with Washington's Latino community for many years, gave the homily.

Hickey's body will be available for viewing today from 10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. in the lower church of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast Washington. McCarrick then will celebrate a vigil Mass in that lower church.

That rite and the funeral Mass tomorrow in the basilica's upper church are open to the public. Hickey's burial in the crypt of St. Matthew's, however, will be private.

The crypt, at the entrance to the cathedral's chapel of St. Francis of Assisi, already holds the remains of Cardinal Patrick O'Boyle, who headed the archdiocese from 1948 to 1973.

The tomb's marble cover was missing yesterday because it had been sent to the engraver. When replaced, it will say: "James Cardinal Hickey 1920-2004. Archbishop of Washington 1980-2000."

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, center, and Washington Diocese priests who served as pallbearers pray over the coffin of Cardinal James A. Hickey upon its arrival at St. Matthew's Cathedral. His funeral is tomorrow.Students from Cardinal Hickey Academy in Calvert County pay respects to the man who founded their school. Hickey, shown in 1997, led the archdiocese for 20 years.