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Deacon Michael P. McKeating had just finished a helping of spaghetti carbonara Tuesday evening when he noticed the crowd swelling near St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican.

The Orchard Park resident immediately high-tailed it out of the restaurant two blocks from the square.

“I heard this roar go up, and I thought, ‘They can’t have a pope already.’ I was confused for a minute,” McKeating said.

The crowd saw smoke and got excited – but it turned out to be thick and black, a signal that a new pope had not been elected.

McKeating was one of several Western New Yorkers in Rome as the papal conclave opened Tuesday. Many of the others were there as part of previously planned pilgrimages or trips, but McKeating made his arrangements after Pope Benedict XVI’s surprise announcement in February that he was stepping down from the chair of St. Peter.

The longtime area lawyer has always hoped to make a trip to Rome during a papal transition – and this time around, everything came together.

A Catholic deacon for many years, Mc-Keating has been a popular interview subject on the streets of Rome over the last week, as a crush of 5,000 journalists from around the world converged on the city to cover the election. “They’re hungry to interview whoever they can. I’ve been interviewed on Korean television, French radio, Boston radio, the BBC in Canada,” he said in a brief telephone conversation shortly after watching the black smoke waft from the Sistine Chapel rooftop.

McKeating arrived in Rome on March 4 and intends to stay through Tuesday. He’s hoping to see the pope elected and installed by then, and he’s open to extending his stay to make sure he’s there when it happens.

“I’m 68 years old,” he said, “and I’ll probably never get another opportunity, so I wasn’t going to miss it.”

email: jtokasz@buffnews.com