Ron teaches folks about the Basilica of St. Josaphat.

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 Complete knowledge of the Basilica’s history is not required, only a willingness to learn.