About 4 a.m. yesterday, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick was awakened by the telephone. It was time to come, said the caller from Jeanne Jugan Residence, a nursing home in Northeast Washington.
So McCarrick hurried to the bedside of his friend and predecessor, Cardinal James A. Hickey, for a final farewell, joining a small circle of Hickey's relatives and friends.
Until Hickey's death at 6:15 a.m., "we were praying all through that time and telling him how much we loved him and how much we knew that God loved him, too," McCarrick said yesterday.
"He had very heavy breathing for a good deal of that time. And suddenly it sort of quieted down, and he went back to God," McCarrick said, adding that it was "a peaceful death."
In a statement released by the White House last night, President Bush called Hickey "an inspirational spiritual leader" and a "caring and compassionate man" who led the archdiocese "with great dignity and conviction."
The president said Hickey would be greatly missed by his church, the Washington community "and all of the people throughout America whose lives he touched so deeply."
In the morning, word of Hickey's death quickly spread to Catholics arriving in a drizzly overcast for Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast.
"The cardinal was a very holy man, and he made the life of Washingtonians and the community better," said Penny Gleason of Northwest Washington, who had met him several times. "He was devoted to the poor, particularly devoted to the poor in South America, and we will miss him greatly."
Olivia Dyhouse of Silver Spring, a volunteer receptionist at the basilica, said, "Every time he would speak, it was always so profound." To her, she added, the cardinal "seemed so quiet and so holy, so spiritual."
John Ross, a member of the basilica's choir who was hurrying to rehearsal, recalled Hickey as "just one of the sweetest guys ever" He said choir members viewed him "as someone who . . . was knowledgeable about music and supportive of that."
Ross said he had been aware of Hickey's declining heath. "We knew that he was ready, and that he had put in a lifetime of service," he added. "This doesn't come as a shock but more like a pause."
Hickey had had heart surgery and hip problems, and had been at the nursing home, which is run by Little Sisters of the Poor, for a year. McCarrick said Hickey's alertness had declined at times recently and that he contracted pneumonia last week.
Besides McCarrick, those present at Hickey's death included longtime friend Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn.; Washington Auxiliary Bishop Kevin J. Farrell; Monsignor Barry Knestout; Hickey's nephew Tom Erickson and his wife, Maribel; and nuns from Little Sisters of the Poor.
Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said there will be a public viewing from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Northwest Washington and from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Friday at the basilica. She said many church prelates, some of them from Rome, are expected at his funeral Mass, at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the basilica.
Burial will be in the crypt of St. Matthew's. Gibbs said Hickey asked to be buried with his mother's rosary beads, the white vestments he wore when ordained a bishop, a ring Pope John Paul II gave him when he was elevated to cardinal and a prayer card commemorating his ordination as a priest 58 years ago.
Staff writer Martin Weil contributed to this report.