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Cardinal James A. Hickey, former archbishop of Washington, who led the Catholic Church in the nation's capital for two decades, died Sunday. He was 84.

One of 13 Americans in the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Hickey headed the Washington Diocese from 1980 to 2000. He died in a Washington nursing home after "his health slowly deteriorated over the past year," said Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the diocese.

Born in Midland, Mich., Cardinal Hickey was ordained a priest 58 years ago and became a cardinal in 1988, eight years after he became archbishop of Washington. On his selection as cardinal, he expressed humility and appreciation to the pope.

"In the years remaining for me, I shall strive to be a caring pastor, a faithful teacher, a loving father and brother and a true servant of the people of God in the District of Columbia and the five counties of Maryland," Cardinal Hickey said at the time.

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the current archbishop and Cardinal Hickey's friend for more than 40 years, said Cardinal Hickey's death was a "poignant loss for the Church of Washington and a personal loss for me."

Cardinal Hickey came to Washington with a reputation as an activist priest. He became a crucial figure in dealing with the government on issues affecting the Church in Central America.

He began his activist career ministering to immigrants in the Saginaw, Mich., area, said the cardinal's longtime secretary, Monsignor Kevin T. Hart. "He will be remembered for his work with the poor," said Monsignor Hart, pastor of St. Ann's Catholic Church in Washington.

Cardinal Hickey lobbied for increased spending to aid the poor, tried to persuade members of Congress to stop giving aid to the Nicaraguan contras in the 1980s and pushed for bishops to take strong stands in favor of nuclear disarmament and against increased military spending.

In his diocese, he established a center for the area's large Hispanic population and expanded Catholic social services greatly, to serve not only the poor of inner-city Washington but people in rural areas of southern Maryland, said Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., a close aide and confidant.

Lori said Cardinal Hickey opened, expanded and strengthened Catholic schools, set up networks for health care and legal aid for the poor and established 10 new parishes.

Church people considered Cardinal Hickey farsighted in dealing with abusive priests, a problem that grew rapidly across the country during his tenure in Washington.

"The cardinal dealt with it forthrightly and upfront in the '90s," Lori said. "He handled everything thoroughly and publicly, much according to the standards that would be expected today."

At his death, Cardinal Hickey had lived for about a year in Jeanne JuGan Home in Washington under the care of the Little Sisters of the Poor.

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