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Pope mania stretches from Jacksonville to D.C.

Local Catholics excited about Pope Francis' first visit to the U.S.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As Pope Francis makes his first trip to the U.S., excitement is building around the country, including on the First Coast.

From Mass in in the nation's capital to a service in Jacksonville, everyone seems to be talking about the pope.

There are about 170,000 Catholics in Northeast Florida, according to the dioceses. Many of them are excited about the pope's visit and said they think it's good for the country.

Noon Mass Wednesday at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in downtown Jacksonville was filled with the faithful, who prayed together for safety and success as Pope Francis makes his first United States trip.

"We pray for his safety. We pray that God will watch over him," said the very Rev. Edward Murphy.

The Catholics that News4Jax spoke to Wednesday said they hope the pontiff can influence U.S. political leaders to protect life and preserve the environment.

"I am hoping that he can help us to do the right thing," Dana Samson said.

He's calling for compassion when it comes to the poor and refugees.

"I hope that his message to Congress is understood," Denise Bunnewith said. "Especially his message on the environment. I think our country needs to take that to heart."

Bunnewith said she saw the revered Pope John Paul II when he visited Chicago years ago. She said it was an incredible experience and she's happy for all who get to see this pope in person.

"This is just a wonderful opportunity for Catholics around the country to see the pope," Bunnewith said. "Just seeing him on television is exciting."

Some locals even made the trip north to see the man who is the spiritual leader for 1.2 billion people worldwide. The Bishop of the Diocese of St. Augustine spent the day with the pope, as did some nuns and churchgoers from the First Coast.

The pope will be in the U.S. for six days with visits to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York. Several Jacksonville residents told News4Jax that they're heading up to catch him in Philadelphia at the World Meeting of Families.

For those who can't make the trip north, a taste of the pope frenzy is available in the River City. A life-sized cutout of Pope Francis is available for snapshots at the Immaculate Conception bookstore downtown.

"It is a big popular attraction," bookstore manager Richard Conant said. "People walk in and they really think it is the pope (at first)."

And at Buca di Beppo's Italian restaurant, diners can have a meal with the pope, thanks to a room fool of pope memorabilia at the eclectic eatery.

"This room will probably become a little bit more popular too with him arriving," server Erin Fitzgerald said.

The pope heads back to the Vatican on Sunday night.