MANY A MAN of the cloth has been endearingly called a "street priest," but Bill Wendt -- who knew Washington's streets of despair, outrage and political activism in the '60s as well as anyone in town -- preferred to think of himself as an "impatient Christian." For nearly 20 years, the Rev. William A. Wendt, who died at 81 during morning services Sunday at St. Margaret's Church, worked both sides of then-divided streets -- challenging traditions that he found to be blocking racial and social justice. As rector of St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church{cedil} Father Wendt converted a staid, previously well-to-do parish into a multi-racial home for social revolution that attracted and spoke up for the city's alienated and downtrodden -- for its welfare clients, feminists, black power leaders, war protesters, gays and others who felt misunderstood or shortchanged.

He called St. Stephen "an Underground Church out in the open." Afflicting the comfortable -- civil disobedience and nonviolent protest -- was only a part of Father Wendt's efforts to involve the church in voicing the frustrations of the less comfortable. Just as he knew the street players, he knew the movers and shakers of local Washington, and how to assist as well as prod them when tensions were high. A relentless proponent of home rule for the District, Father Wendt worked closely and well with other clergy to monitor the volatile urban temperature in the years leading up to the 1968 rioting downtown and its aftermath. He called himself a "political animal because we're all political animals"; he once was elected a member of the District's Democratic State Committee, but rejected suggestions that he run for a D.C. Council seat.

In 1975 Father Wendt allowed the Rev. Allison Cheek to celebrate communion at St. Stephen. He was found guilty of violating Episcopal Church doctrine and formally reprimanded. Two years later, the church decided to admit women to the priesthood. It was then that Father Wendt took a sabbatical that was to lead to his founding of the St. Francis Center, an innovative ministry to the dying. From studying death, he said, he gained an education on life and how to live it; "I've learned to travel light . . . a lot of material things are not necessary. . . . I take short views of the future. Although I trust in the future to some degree, I think our daily lives are very important, based on making every day count." For himself and for all who came to appreciate his caring counsel and contributions to the heart and soul of a city he loved, Bill Wendt made those days count large.