Pope Francis I may never have entered the church had his childhood sweetheart not spurned his marriage proposal - when he was just 12 years old.

According to the Daily Mail, Jorge Bergoglio wrote a letter of undying love to Amalia Damonte, even though he was barely into his teens. He asked her to marry him and said he would become a priest if she did not.

"He said that if I didn't say yes, he would have to become a priest. Luckily for him, I said no", Damonte explained.

"He had a crush on me. We used to play on the streets here. It was a quiet neighbourhood then, and, well, he was very nice."

Damonte still lives in the Flores neighbourhood of Buenos Aires. Now 76, she said she "froze" in front of the television when the announcement was made that Bergoglio was to be the new Pope.

"I couldn't believe that Jorge was the Pope!" she exclaimed.

Bergoglio, who assumed the papal name of Francis I, is the first non-European in over 1,000 years to hold the title of Pope and the first South American cardinal to be elected to the holy office.

He has previously admitted to loving the tango, saying the South American dance "came from within", and said he was a fan of musicians Carlos Gardel and Julio Sosa.

Pope Francis
Newly elected Pope Francis I, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, leads a mass at the Sistine Chapel Reuters