In the 1970s, the Rev. Joseph M. Kakalec harnessed the power of Philadelphians by creating a coalition of neighborhoods. A decade later, he organized suburban communities when problems of crime, poverty, and deteriorating housing overflowed from the city.

Father Kakalec, 77, who died of renal failure Sunday at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, was remembered yesterday as a soft-spoken Jesuit priest who brought people together to improve their neighborhoods.

He was the "George Washington of the modern neighborhood movement," said Edward A. Schwartz, a former City Councilman and city housing director. In the 1970s, Schwartz said, neighborhood activism was considered reactionary and suspect. "Joe gave it moral leadership. He had enormous ability to connect with people one-on-one."

"He could make blacks and whites, men and women, comfortable with one another," said Allen Hornblum, a professor at Temple University and former director of the Southeastern Chapter of the Americans for Democratic Action. He gave people the confidence to fight City Hall, Hornblum said.

While teaching at St. Joseph's Preparatory School in the early 1970s, Father Kakalec became involved with the Jesuit social ministry in North Philadelphia. By 1974, he was heading a coalition of civic groups that lobbied Mayor Frank Rizzo to give them a voice in the city's applications for federal funds for urban projects.

That year, Schwartz established the Institute for the Study of Civic Values in Philadelphia. He and Father Kakalec joined forces in 1976 to found the Philadelphia Council of Neighborhood Organizations (PCNO). When the council held a convention that year, 1,000 people attended, Schwartz said, representing 100 community groups.

As president of the council, Father Kakalec led the fight against SEPTA fare increases; persuaded banks to free up mortgage money for low-income buyers; and pushed city-funded neighborhood-improvement projects, including sealing up abandoned houses.

Hornblum was president of a consumer-action group in Northeast Philadelphia when Father Kakalec asked him to join PCNO in 1979. The two men became friends and weekly tennis partners.

Although his six years as head of the council established Father Kakalec as a familiar public figure, he told a reporter that "I've been asked to run for Congress, for [City] Council. I think it's very bad for a priest to be in partisan politics."

Father Kakalec resigned in 1982 to take a yearlong sabbatical at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif.

When he stepped down, newspaper articles and editorials lauded him as the most visible Philadelphia spokesman for neighborhood causes, saying he was "simultaneously candid and reasonable, tough and tactful, unwavering on principle but flexible on detail."

When he returned in 1983, he established the Regional Council of Neighborhood Organizations, a coalition of 32 community groups in Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery Counties. He told a reporter in 1986: "All the problems that we once associated with the city - housing, drugs, crime, transportation - have now spilled over into the suburbs." The council persuaded banks to offer financing for low-income families in Montgomery County and to make checking accounts available at a reduced cost, and dealt with slumlords in Norristown and with problem schools in Chester.

The regional council offered training sessions to suburbanites who, Father Kakalec said, "have no concept of community control. To organize and have some say in their lives is a new lesson for them."

After retiring in 2000, Father Kakalec assisted the pastor at St. Mary's Byzantine Catholic Church in Wilkes-Barre, and then was assistant pastor at St. John's Byzantine Catholic Church in Scranton. He moved to Manresa Hall, a Jesuit retirement residence in Merion Station, in June.

Father Kakalec attended a Byzantine-rite Catholic church growing up with 12 siblings in McAdoo, Schuylkill County. His father, a native of Czechoslovakia, was a coal miner who was involved in local politics. After high school, Father Kakalec served in the Army and then earned a bachelor's degree from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1957, and while studying for the priesthood earned a master's degree in political science from St. Louis University. He was ordained in 1967.

He is survived by a brother, Michael; a sister, Helen Sorrentino; and nieces and nephews.

A Funeral Mass will be said at 11 a.m. today at Holy Ghost Byzantine Catholic Church, 24th and Wolf Streets, Philadelphia. Friends may call at 10 a.m. Burial will be in the Jesuit cemetery in Wernersville, Pa.