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Pope Francis, elected Wednesday by his fellow cardinals to lead the Roman Catholic Church, shares with the region a Jesuit heritage.

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, of Argentina became the first Jesuit pope. Much of the region along the Potomac River was once owned by the Jesuit church, an order that grew from Spain.

Father Andrew White, a Jesuit, first ministered to American Indian populations and the English-speaking populations in the region when he came over on the Ark and the Dove with the first Europeans to settle in Maryland in 1634.

The Jesuits here were involved in missionary work and oversaw large tracts of farmland for more than 300 years.

“We at one point had over 30,000 acres in Southern Maryland,” the Rev. Thomas Clifford, pastor at St. Ignatius Church at Chapel Point, said. The Port Tobacco Catholic church is one of only four Jesuit parishes left in the Maryland and Washington, D.C., area.

Clifford said that at one point, there were 30 Jesuit parishes in Southern Maryland. Now, St. Ignatius in Charles County is the only one.

During missionary work in the Americas and elsewhere, the Jesuits founded many schools, including Georgetown University and Loyola University.

“We ended up being noted as educators,” Clifford said.

The selection of the new pope offered tie-ins for Catholic students at local Archdiocese of Washington Catholic schools and St. Mary’s Ryken High School.

“The kids were all tuned into it yesterday and were all excited,” the Rev. Lee Fangmeyer at St. Michael’s Church in Ridge said Thursday. He said the students have been learning about the history of the Roman Catholic Church’s leadership position and just what a pope does.

“He does seem very humble and authentic,” he said.

Fangmeyer’s parishioners, especially the older ones, are recalling when the Jesuits still ran most of the churches in the region through the 1960s.

“This is Jesuit country,” he said.

The Jesuits began in the early 1500s as a reform group of the Catholic church and vowed to help the poor.

At one point, they were not recognized formally by the Catholic church. Local Jesuits were criticized by the church for the use of slaves, Clifford said.

A lot has changed since then, and the election of a Jesuit pope solidifies that, Clifford said.

He said he was surprised by the election of Pope Francis, but pleased, adding that it was likely the Argentinian’s “down-to-earth” interactions with people that helped make him an attractive choice for the cardinals.

The Jesuit designation could bring some extra attention to Clifford’s parish in Charles County, he said.

“I think we were all taken by surprise,” said Father Alain Colliou of Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Waldorf. Bergoglio was mentioned as a papal possibility eight years ago during the conclave that elected the retired Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and was not chosen then.

Colliou said that perhaps people thought that because of Bergoglio’s age, he would not be considered and a younger Pope would be chosen. Many people probably expected the selection process to take much longer.

The choice of Bergoglio breaks 1,200 years of tradition of choosing a European pope.

Colliou is “personally excited” that someone from Buenos Aires, Argentina, was chosen. He worked there for a time.

During Wednesday morning Mass, Colliou said he and others prayed for the pope as they do every morning, but that morning was different.

“There was a sense of joy,” Colliou said. “First time ever a pope is born in the Americas.”

Colliou said that Catholics believe the 115 cardinals who have the task of choosing a new pope are guided by the Holy Spirit. The selection of Bergoglio is a recognition for Latin Americans, who make up 40 percent of the world’s Catholic population.

Staff writer Rebecca J. Barnabi contributed to this article.