One religion: Two languages
The sun sets across Lake Tahoe as families dressed in their Sunday best file into the Kings Beach Catholic church. Teenagers crowd the pews, toddlers drape themselves across their mothers’ laps while others wait outside the church doors to hear a snippet of the sermon.
Every face at Ash Wednesday Mass is framed with darker hair, and animated by deep brown eyes. Their voices sing devotions to God ” in Spanish.
Everyone here is Latino. Except for the priest.
“It’s a challenge, no question,” Father Stanley Poltorak says in European-accented English. “In terms of time, and being by myself with the [Spanish] language and the cultural variations.”
The Polish-born priest has been the resident pastor at the Assumption Parish in Truckee for more than 12 years, which includes a satellite church in Kings Beach called Our Lady of the Lake. Poltorak has worked with Spanish-speaking communities throughout his 25 years as a priest in Vallejo, South Lake Tahoe and now Truckee-Tahoe. Though he says the region’s Latino population has grown slowly since his arrival, it remains challenging to minister to both the Anglo and Mexican-Catholic communities.
Early Sunday morning a handful of Subarus, Jeeps and other four-wheel drive cars are parked near Truckee’s Assumption Catholic Church. Inside, couples and families speckle the wooden pews, the kids decked out in ski pants and boots, ready to hit the slopes after they take Communion. Neighbors greet each other with “Peace be with you,” and toss $20 bills into the tithing basket.
Most parishioners have sleepy eyes, their bodies bundled in snow outfits, and a few glance at their watches in between hymns.
Everyone here is white.
Separated by just 12 miles and a 7,200-foot pass, the two Catholic churches on either side of Brockway Summit may as well be in different worlds. The Spanish-language Mass in Kings Beach and Truckee’s English service have just two things in common ” the Catholic faith and Father Poltorak.
Sitting behind his desk littered with religious knickknacks and papers, Poltorak explains that while it can be difficult to minister to two communities at two churches, he does not focus on the congregations’ disparities.
“People are people,” he says. “They have needs and you meet them.”
Poltorak gives sermons in both languages, reading the Spanish mass from a script he prepares ahead of time. The biblical verse central to the sermon is the same, but how he delivers the message may differ a bit.
And though he doesn’t speak Spanish fluently ” “it’s broken,” he says ” he doesn’t stumble over the foreign words either. His Eastern-European accent is a bit difficult to understand, both in English and Spanish, but he is modest and warm and risks speaking errors in an effort to commune with all his parishioners.
“As a pastor you have to be involved in both communities,” Poltorak explains. “It’s a unique situation.”
Still, given the language constraints, he cannot provide equal ministry and admits he would like assistance.
Almost six years ago Poltorak started to study Spanish more seriously so that he could better serve members of the church. He spent time in Mexico and lived with a family during an intensive language course.
“There was a need for him to be able to communicate with Spanish-speaking members of the parish,” said Jack Ahern, who attends the Truckee services and works with Father Poltorak weekly on his Spanish.
Parishioners credit Poltorak for his efforts to serve both communities, though he can’t communicate as easily with each.
“We all appreciate the fact that he’s trying to give us what we need, in Spanish,” said Claudia Rodriguez.
Rodriguez was born in Mexico but is bilingual. She prefers attending Mass celebrated in Spanish in Kings Beach.
“He has a hard time, too,” Rodriguez added. “But we understand and follow him with the books.”
Not only does Poltorak go back and forth between two languages, he drives back and forth between the two churches. On Sundays he celebrates an 8 a.m. Mass in Truckee, treks down to Kings Beach for a 9:30 a.m. service, and turns right back around on Highway 267 for an 11 a.m. Mass in Truckee. He retraces the circuit in the evening.
“It’s a challenge ” we are impacted by the roads,” said Poltorak, who braves the weekend traffic congestion near Northstar. “I’ve never missed Mass, but sometimes I might be a few minutes late. The schedule is very intense and we have to keep going.”
Sometimes Poltorak feels he is spreading himself too thin, something noticed by the Latino members of the parish.
“It would be nice to have a Hispanic priest here,” said Rodriguez. “But I think the main thing is to have any priest here in Kings Beach.”
Cultural traditions such as quinceaneras, baptisms and even weddings draw stark contrasts between American and Mexican Catholicism. The rituals of Mass transcend language, but how it is delivered differs between cultures. Mexican priests are known to be animated and to deliver much longer sermons incorporating lessons from local life.
“Our culture is so ” how should I say it? ” passionate,” said Martha Sandoval of Truckee.
“I know we would like to see someone from our own culture,” she added.
Sandoval was born in Mexico and has been in the area for six years. She usually attends the Spanish-language mass at the Truckee church, but will sometimes go to the English service.
“It’s hard, but it seems like a lot of us Latinos go [to Mass] because we have the faith,” Sandoval said.
Along with the Latino members of the parish, Poltorak said he would like to have an additional priest, preferably bilingual, to serve the Truckee-Tahoe area.
He said he enjoys learning Spanish and working with the Spanish-speaking community, but knows that he cannot fully attend to both cultures. Yet, he won’t stop his Spanish lessons because he wants to become fluent.
“It would be hard to let go,” he says.
And while many Latino members of his church reluctantly say that they, too, would like to have a bilingual priest, they recognize Father Poltorak’s unique challenge in ministering one faith to two cultures across town.
“I am very thankful for Father Stanley’s effort,” said Sandoval, referring to the parish priest by his first name. “All the things that he does. I don’t really know the reason we don’t have a Spanish-speaking priest, but I’m really happy with the service myself. I’m thankful I can practice my religion in this country.”
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