In September 1972, a Missionaries of Charity sister from India — a woman physically small but spiritually large — was visiting Washington, partly to raise funds for her homeless shelter in Calcutta. By chance, she stopped by the Zacchaeus Community Kitchen a few blocks east of the White House on New York Avenue NW.

Also by chance, it was opening day, a festive moment organized by Father Edward Guinan. The priest, then 36, newly ordained and a member of the Paulist order, had been preparing the lunchtime meal.

He expected about 20 homeless people. More than 100 came. As with politicians throwing out the season’s first baseball, who better, he thought, to ladle the first bowl of soup than a sister from Calcutta, whoever she might be.

It was Mother Teresa, seven years from winning the Nobel Peace Prize and 31 years from beatification by the Catholic Church.

So began the ministry of J. Edward Guinan, one that would deliver the works of mercy and rescue to uncountable numbers of Washington’s dispossessed and forgotten. Two years earlier, as a chaplain at George Washington University, where his fiery let’s-go-to-the-barricades sermons attracted large crowds of students, he founded the Community for Creative Nonviolence (CCNV), a nonprofit group that would combine militant antiwar activism and equally militant advocacy for society’s broke and broken who lacked homes, help and hope.

J. Edward Guinan, a former priest who founded D.C.’s largest homeless shelter. the Community for Creative Nonviolence. (Larry Morris/The Washington Post)

Mr. Guinan left the priesthood in 1974. Throughout his life, he earned a place on the Catholic left defined by the pacifism of Dorothy Day, the civil disobedience of Daniel and Philip Berrigan and the faith-driven calls of former Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver to replace peace through strength with strength through peace.

He was 78 when died Dec. 26 at his home in the District, said his wife, Kathleen Guinan. The cause was respiratory failure.

Mr. Guinan fasted and led demonstrations to promote his belief that shelter is a basic human right. He engaged in canny political maneuvering with leaders such as House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill (D-Mass.) and D.C. Mayor Marion Barry before his organization was given an abandoned federal building at 425 D St. NW in 1984.

The Washington Post hailed the transfer of property as “an unprecedented accord between the Reagan administration, the District government and the CCNV.”

The CCNV’s Federal City Shelter, which now houses 1,350 beds, is the country’s largest facility for the homeless.

In the 1970s, Mr. Guinan’s charismatic activism attracted dozens of volunteers to what one member called “a boot camp for nonviolence.” College students, physicians and lawyers joined forces with CCNV, as well as others who signed up for the long haul.

CCNV offered beds, meals, medical care, job training, clothing and counseling at facilities throughout the District. In time, other groups inspired by Mr. Guinan were created, including Mary House, Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House and Miriam’s Kitchen, to name a few.

A widespread perception of street people as shiftless panhandlers and layabout winos was reinforced in the 1980s by dismissive government officials, including presidential counselor Edwin Meese, who told the New York Times that “people go to soup kitchens because the food is free and that’s easier than paying for it.”

For Mr. Guinan, such statements and policies became challenges to be overcome. When the Reagan administration sought to reduce funding for food stamps and child nutrition, lines grew longer at shelters and kitchens.

The CCNV “consistently portrayed homeless people as rational human beings capable of making choices that were in their own best interests,” Hofstra University professor Cynthia J. Bogard wrote in “Seasons Such As These: How Homelessness Took Shape in America” (2003). “This image of homeless people proved to be a resonant and enduring one in Washington’s local press and among . . . politicians and social service providers.”

John Edward Guinan was born March 6, 1936, in Denver. He served two years in the Navy before graduating from the University of Colorado in 1960. After working as a stock trader in San Francisco, he entered St. Paul’s College, a Paulist seminary in Washington, and was ordained a priest in 1970.

In 1974, he was formally laicized by the church after he left the priesthood to marry Kathleen Thorsby, a CCNV volunteer. In addition to his wife, survivors include four children, Sarah Nixon, Timothy Guinan, Matthew Guinan and John Guinan, all of Washington; two brothers; a sister; and three granchildren.

Working among the nation’s underclass gave Mr. Guinan insights into the ruling class.

“Under the umbrella of violence,” he wrote in the introduction to “Peace and Nonviolence,” a 1973 book he edited, “there reside two distinctively different phenomena. First, there is the violence of men and women who act out of frustration, hopelessness and anger in an attempted grasp at life. . . . The other type of violence is the violence of the respectable, the violence of the powerful that seeks personal gain and privilege by maintaining inhuman conditions. It is the violence of the boardrooms, legislators, and jurists . . . This latter type of violence is what we must become aware of and actively dismantle if the future is to hold any possibilities for peace.”

In April 1974, Mr. Guinan when on a water-only fast that successfully pressured Catholic Archbishop William Wakefield Baum to back off from buying a mansion in Kalorama, one of Washington’s wealthiest neighborhoods. The fast attracted national attention and went for 27 days. At its conclusion, Mr. Guinan, who lost 41 pounds, said his goal was to create “a reordering of priorities by the archdiocese so as to provide for the poor and abandoned.”

The most notable volunteer to join CCNV in the mid-1970s was Mitch Snyder, who converted to Catholicism while serving time for auto theft in a federal prison in Connecticut with the Berrigan brothers. Building on the foundational strength created by Mr. Guinan, Snyder led a series of fasts, lawsuits and demonstrations to dramatize the needs of the homeless.

From 1985 until his retirement in 2010, Mr. Guinan was the executive director of Wellspring Ministries, a Fairfax County nonprofit providing residential services for adults with developmental disabilities.

Most days, Mr. Guinan arrived at 7 a.m. and worked until mid-afternoon, then went to the Zacchaeus Kitchen where he was the volunteer director and where much of his life’s work — finding places at the table for Washington’s hungry — began four decades earlier and, by his daughter’s count, several million meals ago.

McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist, directs the Center for Teaching Peace, a Washington nonprofit group.