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.
Eddie Slade, also of Bel Air, took a different view.
"I'm glad we have a pope and it sounds like his policies are going to be trying to get the church back to the basics, and I'm all for that," Slade said.
'It's really cool'
At Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Edgewood, Joe Rozanski asked the several dozen people gathered for a Wednesday night bingo tournament what they thought of the new pope.
Small shouts of "yippee" and cheers rose in response to the bingo leader's question.
One of the excited attendees was Josie Cosgrove, of Abingdon.
"I was ecstatic. I was on Facebook, on the Washington Post when it said the smoke had come in," she recalled.
Cosgrove was eager to have a South American pope.
"I think the Hispanics are so under-recognized," she said. "I think it's kind of interesting, because I am Polish. I was ecstatic when the pope was Polish, and he brought on a lot of change and reform, and they compared [Bergoglio] to that pope."
Cosgrove said it did not appear anyone expected a pope from Argentina.
She noted, however, that "his parents were from Italy, so the Italians got a little bit their way."
"I just think it's really cool," she said, smiling.
Barbara Arnold, of Abingdon, said her family talked about the pope at their dinner table.
She was one of several residents to describe the new pontiff as "humble."
"I was very happy and I thought they picked a really good one," Arnold said. "You could tell that they did the best they could because they picked someone who was very humble, and I think he is going to lead the church in the right direction."
One thing Arnold did not like was "the spoofs" she saw on TV making fun of the pope.
"It was ridiculous," she noted.
Joan Chavis, of Abingdon, and Virginia Berkowitz, of Forest Hill, who sat next to each other at the bingo table, said they thought residents were generally happy with the election.
"We are pretty well-pleased. From his background, I think he is going to be good," Chavis said. "I was happy. I watched [the conclave] all day."
Berkowitz added: "He seems like a very humble man."
She cautioned that it is too soon to say more, as his whole background is still being revealed.
In the meantime, she said: "I thought he started out fantastic."
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