His parishioners remember him as the priest who came out in the middle of the night to pray over a dying infant and console the parents. When he was chaplain at Delaware State Hospital here, he always had a pack of cigarettes, a dollar or two and a willing ear for the senile woman patient who had no one else to visit her.

But according to Delaware State Police, this same priest, the Rev. Bernard T. Pagano, is also the man who calmly strolled into six Wilmington area stores last winter, pulled out a tiny, chrome-plated gun and then politely said to the clerks: "Give me the money."

Pagano, 53, a Catholic priest for 21 years, will go on trial here today as the suspected "Gentleman Bandit."

The sorbriquet was coined by police investigators who were searching last winter for nattily dressed, fedoratopped fellow who often bought something in a store he was about to rob and always treated his victims with the utmost courtesy, once going so far as to tell a clerk apologetically, "I wouldn't do this if I didn't have to."

The priest became a suspect in the robberies after a member of a parish he served in 1972 saw a composite picture of the "Gentleman Bandit" in a Wilmington newspaper and told police it looked like Pagano. This informant, according to police investigators, told them that Pagano had been involved in a financial dispute with that church and added: "I wouldn't put it [the robberies] past him."

Before Pagano was arrested last February, theree of the robbery victims identified him through photographs as the "Gentleman Bandit."

Detective James Dillon, a state police investigator, sa-d eight witnesses later picked Pagano out in a police lineup in which all men wore dress hats of the sort the bandit wore.

Later, while in police custody, Pagano failed three polygraph tests, according to Dillon. And investigators seized a black, three-quarter-length overcoat and three hats from the priest that matched the "Gentleman Bandit's" clothing.

Since February, any new detail in this unusual case has made front page news here, where Pagano lives, and in Cambridge, Md., the Eastern Shore town where he served as the popular assistant pastor of St. Mary's Refuge of Sinner's Church.

Through it all, Pagano, a tall, gaunt man given to chain-smoking, long silences and wistful, distant looks, has quietly maintained his innocence. And he has remained a mysterious figure, revealing only the shadows of his life to parishioners, fellow priests, former associates and the police.

His parishioners, for the most part, saw Pagano as an open-minded, tireless priest who seemed to touch many of their lives lives in a personal way. But police have uncovered certain details about his life that present a very different side to the man.

For example, Pagano noted on an application letter for a teaching position at Wilmington College that he had a doctoral degree from the University of Pittsburgh and had taken postgraduate courses at Pennsylvania State University and the University of Illinois. These schools, however, have no records of Pagano as a student.

A Wilmington College official who checked the college's Pagano file said the priest appeared to have superimposed the signature of a University of Pittsburgh official on the transcript bearing his name and then sent a Xerox copy to the college.

Other details of Pagano's life show he had some difficulty living within the restrictions normally placed on a Catholic priest's life style.

While most diocesan priests live in a rectory with other priests near the church where they serve, Pagano has lived for most of the last 15 years with a Wilmington area widow he says is his sister.

But birth records show that the widow, Doris Doerner, and Pagano were born of different parents. She was born in Philadelphia and reared in a Delaware orphanage; he was born in Newark, N.J., and reared in nearby Kearny.

Msgr. Paul E. Taggart, vicar general of the Wilmington diocese, said Pagano gave his church superiors an affidavit stating the Doerner is his half sister. But the diocesan officials have refused to show this affidavit to police.

Although it is unusual for priets - who take a vow of poverty - to acquire property, Pagano and Doerner are the owners of a $50,000 home on two acres George's, just outside Wilmington, according to property tax records. They run a dog kennel busines on the premises.

Pagano's living arrangement distressed the bishop, Thomas J. Mardaga, according to his friends, but he never acted to stop it. Pagano also irritated his superiors in the church by conducting a private couseling service for a few years in the early 1970s. "Priests shouldn't counsel for money," said Msgr. Taggart, who directed Pagano to stop charging for such services.

Taggart said that during the dispute over the counseling service church officials asked Pagano to produce evidence that he had degrees certifying his status as a professional counselor. Pagano never did show them the degrees, but the church leaders dropped the issue when Pagano agreed to stop couseling.

Within the confines of the church, however, Pagano was less eccentric. "When he got up to a pulpit you didn't have to worry he was going to preach heresay," said a fellow priests. "He was not considered one of the far out [priests]."

And yet, he once wrote a treatise that portrayed the Catholic Church as "a guilt machine." His superiors in the priesthood would not let him publish it.

His sermons, which often dealt with the themes of love and sacrifice, were sometimes highly intellectual, and he would draw on the works of psychologists Karl Jung and Sigmunc Freud.

But his delivery was never stiff. He was not beyond using Flip Wilson's famous "the devel made me do it" line to make a point, a parishioners said.

Pagano's friends and enemines agree that he has a strong and warm personality. When he was the chaplain at Delaware State Hospital he would arrive at work several hours early to have breakfast and chat with the employes, said his former boss, Robert Feeney.

"When a patient stopped him on the grounds, no matter where he was going or what he had to do, he always had time for them," said Mary Price, a hospital worker who turned to Pagano for support when her husband was dying of cancer.

"I couldn't have lived through those eight months without him," said Price. "He was my crutch."

Fran Herron, a former priest who served as Pagano's superior at a suburban Wilmington church, said that he could at times have "an almost hypnotic" effect on people. "Most people were used to having some idiot priest yelling at them all the time," said Herron. "Bernie was kind and gentle."

Indeed, one acquaintance in Cambridge, teacher Art Renkwitz, compared Pagano to Robin Hood. "He worked with kids in trouble, he worked with adults, he saved marriages," said Renkwitz. "Just like Robin Hood, he would always be where the people would be."

At the time of Pagano's arrest, Renkwitz was helping him try to get a commercial sponsor interested in his plan for a children's television show in which youngsters would discuss contemporary problems. Renkwitz said Pagano had a special regard for children because "their minds are not yet cluttered."

Pagano, although cordial when asked about the case, has refused to talk about it on the record. He has told friends that he believes his arrest was a case of mistaken identity, that he has alibi witnesses and that he fully expects to be acquitted.

Carl Schnee, Pagano's defense attorney, is expected to hammer at te fact that most of the witnesses picked Pagano out as the suspect after he was arrested and his picture appeared in the newspaper.

The case still presents some mysteries even for the state police investigators. Their suspect, for one thing, is charged with taking less than $2,000 from the stores that were robbed. Pagano appears in the little need of that amount of money. He has $20,000 in savings bonds, $4,000 in a savings account and $500 in his checking account.

And, while Pagano was being held in the Delaware State Hospital following his arrest, another Wilmington store was robbed by a man whose description was similar to the "Gentleman Bandit."

Detective Dillon of the state police said, however, that the later robbery also included a rape and, unlike the earlier incidents, "there was nothing polite or apologetic about the robber." He speculated that the robber in that case may have read about the "Gentleman Bandit" in the newspaper and deliverately imitated him.

Pagano has been free on bond for the last five months and has lived quietly, spending much of this time working at his kennel at St. George's. Each day at noon he goes to the Kirkwood Fitness Club - where he is a lifetime member - to play racket ball for a few hours. Police once staked out the fitness club with one of the robberty victims - the first to identify him as the "Gentleman Bandit."

Church officials have reacted to the Pagano case with either total silence or awkward, guarded explanations. In a terse telephone interview, Bishop Mardage said, "Under the circumstances...the less said about this matter, the better."

After his arrest, Catholic officials moved Pagano from his church in Cambridge to a smaller church in Wilmington that is only two blocks from the court where he will stand trial. But Pagano returned to the Cambridge church one Sunday in March to say mass.

As many of the men, women and children there wept softly, Pagano talked about the kindness they had shown him since his arrest. "This great experience God has given men, I would go through it all again because I know that I am not alone," he told his parishioners that day.

They applauded loudly. Then they set up a legal defense fund for the priest. CAPTION: Picture, THE REV. BERNARD T. PAGANO ... picked out in police lineup