Around 2 p.m. Wednesday, the bell at Saint Margaret Parish in Bel Air pealed as word quickly spread from faithful observers in St. Peter's Square in Rome throughout the world that white smoke was pouring from the chimney at the Vatican, the formal announcement of the election of a new pope.
"The kids were cheering, and everybody got really excited and they wanted to know who it was," Mary Salvatierra, a kindergarten teacher at the parish school, said Wednesday afternoon.
Salvatierra said school staff eagerly searched their laptops and televisions for news of who the newest pope would be, during the more than one-hour period which elapsed between the white smoke and the introduction of 76-year-old Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis I, the 226th pope.
Bergoglio had served as the archbishop of Buenos Aries, his nation's capital. The leader of the world's Catholics is a Jesuit, and he is the first pope from Latin America.
He succeeds Pope Benedict XVI, who announced his retirement last month after nearly eight years as pontiff.
Salvatierra said her young kindergartners are still learning the difference between church leaders such as priests, bishops and cardinals, and the concept of the pope is still "very abstract for them."
"They just know that they're all special people of God," she said of church leaders.
Father Doug Kenney, an associate pastor at Saint Margaret, said he admires the new pope for his humility, and he shares the name of St. Francis of Assisi, an Italian who lived during the Middle Ages and was known for his humility and efforts to reach out to all people and animals.
"I think he's going to be willing to make a lot of changes [in the Catholic Church]," Kenney said. "He's going to be watching out for those who are less fortunate and those who are in need."
Laura Stafford, an administrative assistant for the town of Bel Air, was working at her office at the town hall Wednesday afternoon when an Italian friend who lives in the Washington area sent her an e-mail with the news of the new pope.
"We both have a deep love for St. Francis," Stafford said.
She explained that St. Francis is "my favorite because of his love of animals and nature, and he had a heart to follow Jesus."
Kevin Jasper, manager of the Main Street Tower Restaurant in downtown Bel Air, said the news "was all over the TV" in the bar and restaurant.
"The people that were in here, they knew what the white smoke meant," he said.
Jasper said his brother called him during the announcement to let him know an ultrasound had just revealed the brother, who already has several daughters, would be having a son.
"It gave me a little bit of chills," Jasper said.
Patrons gathered in the Tower's bar as some flat-screen televisions showed sports news, and others carried live coverage of the papal announcement from Rome.
John Shultz of Bel Air said he thought Francis has "all the holy attributes" to be pope, but "still follows more conservative dogma."
The new pope is known as a champion of the poor in Argentina, but still "staunchly" opposes concepts traditionally opposed by the Catholic Church such as abortion, the use of contraception and same-sex marriage, according to a profile in National Catholic Reporter.
"We need some more moderate ideas in the Catholic Church," Shultz said.