Bishop James A. Hickey of Cleveland, a strong supporter of civil rights for minorities, has been named the new archbishop of the Catholic archdiocese of Washington, it was announced yesteray.

Hickey, 59, who actively supported the desegregation of Cleveland's public schools, will replace Cardinal William Baum, who was appointed head of the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education at the Vatican in January.

Church sources say that it is likely that Hickey will be made a cardinal within the next year or two in keeping with the prestige and importance of the Washington position. Hickey's two most recent predecessors, Baum and Cardinal Patrick O'Boyle, were named cardinals shortly after taking over in the Washington archdiocese.

"I feel very committed to the inner city," Hickey said in a telephone interview yesterday. "I really feel my heart is there."

Pope John Paul II's appointment of Hickey came as a surprise to local Catholics, although he had been rumored to be among the seven or eight top candidates for the assignment.

Under guidelines established by Pope Paul VI, Hickey was selected from nominations made by Baum, Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, and others in the American church. The apostolic delegate to the United States, Archbishop Jean Jadot, then selected the three men he considered best qualified and forwarded their names to the pope. The names of the other two finalists were not known.

"Our plans now are for me to be installed Aug. 5," Hickey said, adding that he does not now plan to visit Washington until the day before he is installed. "Somewhere along the line I'm going to have to get some rest, go someplace where no one can find me," he said.

Hickey lived in Washington during the mid-1940s while he completed graduate studies in theology at Catholic University. As archbishop, he will serve as the university's chancellor.

The news of the appointment was greeted enthusiastically by area black and Hispanic Catholic groups, as well as church officials.

"Archbishop Hickey is a kind, affable and friendly man," said O'Boyle, who retired in 1973 and now lives in the St. Matthew's Cathedral rectory. "He has proved himself over the years as a true and holy priest devoted especially to the poor and minority groups."

"The very interesting thing about him," said Rev. Sean O'Malley, a Washington priest who works with the Hispanic community, "is that he has worked with Hispanics before. For that reason, I think the feeling here will be very enthusiastic."

"Coming from Cleveland with its terrible problems with minorities, housing and jobs, I think [Hickey] will be quite aware of what we're all about here," said Jacqueline Wilson, director of the Secretariat for Black Catholics.

Theologically, Hickey's views fall into line with those of the pope. He supports celibacy for the priesthood and opposes the ordination of women as priests.

Although he said "it is the role of the clergy to animate and keep vigorous the community conscience," he said he agrees with the pontiff that clergy should not serve in political posts. Hickey said he supported the pontiff's refusal to let Rep. Robert F. Drinan (D-Mass.), a Jesuit priest, run for reelection to Congress.

Hickey initiated a successful campaign in Cleveland three years ago to bring divorced and separated Catholics back into the church. After establishing a diocesan office that sponsored retreats, support groups and discussion sessions for the divorced and separated, several hundred Catholics returned to the church, according to the Rev. Kenneth Wolnowski, pastor of St. Josaphat's Church in Cleveland.

Hickey, who was born in Midland, Mich., the son of a dentist, said he was called to the priesthood at age 13, when he first joined the seminary.

He said he developed a love for the inner city while completing his studies for the priesthood at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit and at Catholic University.

In 1946, Hickey was ordained a priest in Saginaw, Mich., where he organized a special ministry for Mexican migrant workers.

After earning additional graduate degrees at both the Pontifical Lateran University and Angelicum University in Rome, Hickey returned to the United States to serve as secretary to the bishop of Saginaw for nine years. u

He later was founding rector of St. Paul's Seminary in Saginaw, a consultor to the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education at the Vatican and chairman of the United States Bishop's Committee on Priestly Formation.

From 1967 to 1974, when he was appointed bishop of Cleveland, Hickey served as an auxiliary bishop of Saginaw and was rector of the Pontifical North American College in Rome, the select seminary there run by American bishops.

Hickey, who said he had not been aware that he was under serious consideration, said that he learned of the appointment nine days ago.

"Archbishop Jean Jadot called me last Monday and expressed the wish of the Holy Father [Pope John Paul II] that I accept the appointment," he said yesterday. "I said, 'Archbishop, if that's what the Holy Father wishes, I accept.'"

"It makes you feel good because it's obviously an expression of confidence from the Holy Father," he said.

Hickey first met the pope in 1965 at the close of the Second Vatican Council, when they ended up together at breakfast and spent an hour and a half discussing seminary education.

They met again briefly in Rome three or four years ago and again when Hickey attended the pope's coronation. Hickey was part of the official papal welcoming party in Boston during the pope's U.S. visit last fall.

Hickey, who speaks in a relaxed and easy manner, and frequently laughs at himself, said that he became interested in the problems of Hispanic workers during his days as a seminarian in 1944.

"I was assigned to work with Spanish-speaking workers in the Saginaw Valley in (Michigan)," he recalled. "I'd go out into the sugar beet fields to do my church work. That gave me insight into the serious injustices they were suffering.

Eventually, as bishop of the Cleveland diocese, he directed a program that sent 11 priests to El Salvador, a nation that many of Washington's Hispanic residents call home. When El Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated earlier this year, Hickey was one of three U.S. bishops who attended the funeral. Today, he said, he speaks Spanish and enjoys celebrating mass in that language when the occasion arises.

He said that his commitment to the inner-city poor and black communities goes back to his earliest days as a priest.

"One of my first assignments was to care for a parish in which there were 80 black families in Saginaw," said Hickey. "They lived in conditions similar to what we see in inner cities now."

He appointed a black auxiliary bishop to oversee the 80 inner-city parishes to the Cleveland diocese, which was just under 1 million Catholics, well over the roughly 400,000 in the Washington archdiocese, which includes suburban Maryland counties.

As Cleveland has worked to desegregate its public schools, Hickey publicly supported desegregation, appearing with city leaders occasionally to help cool tempers. In addition, he said "to make sure that our Catholic schools [did not] become havens for those fleeing desegregation," he ordered strict enrollment requirements in parochial schools.

Under those guidelines, most applicants for admission are closely questioned by both the school principal and the parish pastor to ensure that racial motives were not involved.

"We found some who were trying to do it," he said. "It [the screening] has worked very well."

"My background over the years has been with both black and Hispanic communities," he said. "I've worked with both in sort of equal proportions."

There are an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 Hispanics in the Washington area, most of them Catholic and about 70,000 black Catholics, church officials say.

Clementina Cambell, a native of Mexico, learned about Hickey's appointment yesterday when she happened to attend the noon mass at St. Matthew's Cathedral which was dedicated yesterday to Hickey.

"I didn't know about it . . . or his work with my people," she said. "It will be so wonderful! I cannot wait to meet him."