Category Archives: Tours

Les is More at the Basilica Gift Shop

Les Miescke runs the shop.
Les Miescke is the Manager of Basilica Gifts and Tours.

In an ideal world Les Miescke would have relished the opportunity to welcome each and every one of the more than 20,000 visitors that showed up unannounced at the doors of the Basilica of St. Josaphat in 2018 seeking to discover what was underneath that large, impressive dome. But he only works four days a week and allows others to take ownership of his privileged role when he can’t.

“You greet them, make them feel at home . . . and let them explore,” said Les, manager of “Basilica Gifts and Tours” for more than three years and part-time host/coordinator/guide – and friend – to folks from literally all over the world drawn to this special place. The interactions are by far the most fun part of his job as he explains a bit of the history, artistry and significance of what they are about to see as they’re walking about. “Some people come back (to the gift shop) and feel a need to whisper because they’re so overwhelmed and feel a need for that type of respect and reverence. All these wonderful people . . . I love them all!”

In addition to the many spontaneous, self-guided “walk-ins” in 2018, there were 99 formal, scheduled, docent-led tours – usually an hour in length – of some 3,000-plus participants. Last fall, as evidence of the church’s worldwide appeal, a bishop from the Eastern Orthodox Romanian Church made the pilgrimage with 45 monks from Europe for an official tour. Afterward, they lingered in the Basilica to chant, pray and sing together.

For groups of local children, in lieu of the usual $5 tour fee, students of any age are asked to bring two or three non-perishable items in a benevolent gesture to be included in the weekly Parish Center Food Pantry distribution on Wednesday mornings.

Many of the conversations Les initiates with visitors resume inside the gift shop after they have completed their tour. He frequently needs to remind them to speak up, as they often continue in the hushed, reverent tones they used within the Basilica, while they search for mementos or special treasures from the mélange of assorted items for sale on the shelves from vendors the world over. There are rosaries for sale from the Czech Republic, statues hand-painted by Columbian women, pottery from Poland, and a Ukrainian artisan has created a charming three-dimensional, pop-up paper presentation of the Basilica available to the public. Recently, a guest from Barcelona found the perfect nativity to take home that she had taken great pains to find.

Les, a parish member now for 21 years, has spent much of that time volunteering in various capacities, and even prepared the garden beds around the Basilica years ago. There is an ongoing need for more volunteers whether it’s training to become a docent, helping during busy times in the gift shop, directing and advising tourists, or aiding with the food pantry responsibilities.

“It’s my church and when things come up you help!” said Les. “There are so many skilled people within the congregation, and they’re needed to help carry out specific projects. You can’t drive from the airport to downtown without passing this beautiful dome and it’s a point of reference for people and they need to discover the Basilica’s historical, architectural, and spiritual aspect and a place worth visiting. We want it to look nice . . . and friendly.”

“I hope we local people love, care for, and respect the Basilica as much as these world travelers do!”

Les Miescke’s dedication is one more reason the Basilica of St. Josaphat is one of the top things to do in Milwaukee. If you would like to assist Les in the gift shop, your help would be most welcome. If you can offer one or more days a week to volunteer, Les is a great mentor and friend. Even if you can only share a few hours of your time, please contact the St. Josaphat Basilica Foundation at 414-902-3524 or info@thebasilicafoundation.org to express your interest.

Docent Brings a World of Knowledge to Basilica Tours

Well, at least the old Marquette University professor got it somewhat right in his assessment of a young undergraduate student in the 1960s named Ron Szymanski, now 78-years-young, a St. Josaphat Basilica parishioner for eight years, and a volunteer docent (knowledgeable guide) the last four years.

“You’d make an outstanding historian!” was the professor’s opinion then.

docent speaks to tour group
Volunteer docent, Ron Szymanski, shares his expansive knowledge about the Basilica of St. Josaphat with a small tour group. The insights Ron offers help make the Basilica one of the top things to do in Milwaukee.

Indeed, the professor’s judgment was keen – but quite deficient – and to be more thorough he could have added instructor, lecturer, author, theologian, evangelist, consultant and in Ron’s own words, “divergent thinker”, to what has evolved into a long list of lifetime achievements.

After graduating from Marquette, Ron spent 33 years with MPS, the first six as an English teacher and 27 years at the central office in supervision and staff development. In addition, he wrote two textbooks, one on American Literature and one on Composition that were used by educators nationally. In later years he had his own educational consulting business and specialized in designing school curriculum. Ron uses all of that experience to enhance the tours of the Basilica of St. Josaphat with the varied groups he leads. And certainly, what he’s learned and absorbed during the 35 trips he’s made abroad over the years has also impacted the approach he takes as a docent, and his vital desire to share more than mere facts with his audience.

Back in the late 1800s Ron’s paternal grandparents, Ignatius and Salomea Szymanski, as well as her father and nine siblings were members of the growing congregation of 12,000 parishioners (98% of which were of Polish descent) that pitched in to help build the present, and much needed, larger church between 1896 and 1901. Ron’s roots here run deep.

“Many Poles already had the trade skills required and when completed this became the central place for all the extended families to meet on the south side,” said Ron. “With my Catholic upbringing I developed a deep, deep faith and just grew and grew in theology. Sharing faith is an objective way to evangelize along with teaching.”

Ron teaches folks about the Basilica of St. Josaphat.
Volunteer Docent, Ron Szymanski, points out a feature of the Basilica’s spectacular interior to visitors on a group tour.

While conducting Basilica tours, it’s important for Ron to steer clear of the “Concrete-Specific” language (just tangible facts) and use his preferred “Abstract-Conceptual” style and own intuition during interactions with the group.

“Using the Abstract-Conceptual approach leaves people with themes and concepts,” Ron explained. “I use facts to create themes. To build conceptual thinking is really what life’s all about. I have much empathy for the groups and how to address the tour whether it’s a large or small group, young or old, American citizens or a group of Arabs from the Middle East.”

Today, Ron has been slowed somewhat by recent health issues, but his reverence for the Basilica of St. Josaphat and its historic and cultural significance has not waned. He has no plans on cutting back his docent duties and will continue to expound on all manner of subjects related to the church and his Polish heritage. His familiarity and appreciation of distinct themes is seemingly limitless whether the discourse is on history, religion, architecture or artwork.

“I’ll continue as long as I can,” he said. “There’s something special that happens when the Holy Spirit acts to get me through it. I just love interacting with people. This is great for me. It’s a fabulous place to be.”

The gift of volunteer docents like Ron are a big part of what make the Basilica of St. Josaphat one of the top things to do in Milwaukee for tourists and visitors. The St. Josaphat Basilica Foundation is in need of additional docents to lead tours of the Basilica. If you enjoy meeting new people and would like to share the rich history of the Basilica of St. Josaphat with individuals and groups please contact the Foundation at 414-902-3524 or info@thebasilicafoundation.org. Complete knowledge of the Basilica’s history is not required, only a willingness to learn.

Top Tourist Destination

Every year, tens of thousands of people from every walk of life come from all over the world to visit the Basilica. It is currently ranked as a top visitor attraction on TripAdvisor, the world’s largest travel site. This ranking is based on reviews of real travelers to the Basilica. Read their jubilant reviews here:

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The Basilica Visitors Center, located in the John Paul II Pavilion on the west side of the Basilica, is open daily. Public and private schools visit on a nearly weekly basis to focus on subjects like history, art, immigration, theology and architecture. Visit the Basilica today!

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