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An Inside Look at the Basilica with Docent Tom Wong

A docent – a volunteer guiding a group or individual as they experience the sights, sounds, and heart of the Basilica – points out the presence of a block of white marble behind the gate on the floor in the Chapel of Our Lady of Lourdes: “Did you know that this marble is part of the cell which imprisoned the legendary St. Joan of Arc before her execution?”

If you’ve visited the Basilica, you may have joined a tour led by Tom Wong, a civil engineer who has enthusiastically volunteered his free time as a docent for the past five years. Today, he shares some of his favorite experiences as a docent, lesser-known facts about the art and architecture of Mary’s Shrine, and why he is passionate about being involved in the life of America’s Catholic Church 

Tom, tell us a little about yourself:

I am originally from the Diocese of Trenton in New Jersey and moved to the D.C. area after graduating from The Catholic University of America in 2017 with degrees in civil engineering. My parents had previously taken me on trips to the District for the annual March for Life or college visits during which I immersed myself in the area. I quickly found myself loving the constant activity in our nation’s capital and saw many opportunities for personal and professional enrichment! My wife and I met at Catholic U and have not moved too far away from this special place, Brookland’s “Little Rome.”

What motivates and inspires you when volunteering at the Basilica?

The pilgrims! Seeing the curiosity, faith, and wonder expressed by those I see throughout the Basilica can often be a beautiful sharing of spiritual intimacy. Pilgrims of all walks of life visit the Basilica, though my favorites are the youngest Catholic school groups who have no limit of questions or amazement at their surroundings.

The energy of these young people is both inspiring and a joyful pleasure to focus on the artwork adorning the dozens of chapels and oratories; the mosaics and statues and reliefs themselves are parts of the devotions to the Blessed Mother which I’m all too thrilled to share with the youngest of open minds. Perhaps these little ones will one day remember the odd tour guide who showed them around the Basilica years from now and decide to return with a group of their own? God loves them and their teachers for creating for me many happy memories and smiles.

What are some of the significant events that you have been involved with as a docent?

Besides volunteering for the 2015 visit of Pope Francis, I’ve been pleased to bear witness to the Justice Antonin Scalia funeral, the (discreet) visits of a few national and world leaders, welcoming diocesan pilgrimages (especially from my hometown diocese), praying with members of the USCCB Administrative committee, serving at chapel dedications, and even chatting with my hometown Congressman after we sat in the Confession line together! Being a humble part of the life of the Shrine has afforded me the great opportunity to better relate to some of the figures I admire and look up to.

Can you share an interesting fact that someone may not know about the Basilica?

The life-sized statue of the Virgin Mary on top of the baldachin dome is a few inches off-center to illustrate that we, as Catholics, do not worship Mary, but through her and her unique position as the Mother of God and intercessor of her Son, our prayers are specially raised to Heaven by the Blessed Mother who never abandons her children.

Also, the Chapel of Our Lady of Lourdes honors another great French saint besides St. Bernadette Soubirous: the presence of a seemingly random block of white marble behind the gate on the floor is part of the cell which imprisoned the legendary St. Joan of Arc before her execution!

What would you say to someone interested in volunteering at the Basilica?

We’d love to have you join us in our ministry! It is a blessing to be able to welcome and guide those who make a visit to the Shrine and shape their time into a holy pilgrimage. We are not merely docents assisting visitors around some museum but, in this preeminent Marian shrine of the United States, we hope that fulfilling our duties may inspire a visitor’s deeper love of God or let them find refuge in Mary’s House from the attacks of the world and be comforted and renewed by the Holy Spirit.

We can never know the full impact we have on our visitors, but God can work wonders with even the smallest of open minds in those who appreciate a tour or avail themselves of the artwork, Sacrament of Reconciliation, Holy Mass, the Rosary, or Eucharistic Adoration at the Shrine. Volunteering at the Shrine is immensely rewarding, very flexible, and an exciting opportunity to be involved in the life of America’s Catholic Church. Prayerfully consider offering your time and talent to our Lady.

How do you spend your time when you’re not volunteering at the Basilica?

I like having a good routine and there are few professions that reward fans of routine as well as a career in the federal government! Actually, as a civil engineer I have no shortage of opportunities to attempt creative problem solving (the paperwork is more routine) throughout project management. I was fortunate to shadow the stone contractor of the Trinity Dome the summer before I interviewed for joining the government; that unique experience(s) at the Basilica probably helped me get assigned to the ongoing Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial downtown! When I return home to my wife each day we relax together over dinner and some entertainment. We have no shortage of adventures in home improvement, cooking, or enjoying the neighborhood. While the Basilica affords me the chance to perform some service regularly, I am proud to support the efforts of the Knights of Columbus, which I joined as a first-year student at Catholic University.

Thank you, Tom, for your service to the Basilica and our nearly one million annual visitors!


Take a Tour of the National Shrine

If you would like to tour the Shrine, we offer free guided tours that last just under one hour. The tours include visits to chapels on both levels, and information on the history of the Shrine, its architecture and ecclesiastical artwork. View the magnificent mosaics ornamenting the chapels and the domes in the Great Upper Church, as well as several majestic sculptures depicting Jesus Christ, Mary the Mother of God, and many saints.


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