After summiting National Shrine’s ‘Mount Everest,’ project leaders reflect on mosaic installation
Dec. 12, 2017
US & World
About 10 years ago, David Jonke was walking down the center aisle of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, when his mentor at Rugo Stone looked up at the Great Dome and said to him, “Kid, how are we going to get up there and do that someday?”
Now, Jonke is able to look back at the completion of the Trinity Dome project and remember how he oversaw the mosaic installation process as the project’s general superintendent for Rugo Stone, the company that had overall responsibility for the construction of the Trinity Dome. He and Brett Rugo, the company’s president and owner, were there every step of the way, beginning with the design for the 20,000 pieces of scaffolding, continuing through the mosaic installation, and not ending until the last part of the scaffolding was removed.
Rugo Stone has been working on projects at the shrine since 1997, starting with the Universal Call to Holiness, a large bas relief located at the back of the Great Upper Church just below the organ. They also worked on the Knights of Columbus Incarnation Dome, the Redemption Dome, the new rosary walk, and many of the cultural chapels in the basilica.
“[The National Shrine] is our most special client; our most treasured client,” said Rugo.
The Trinity Dome was the most ambitious project yet, as it is five times larger than the previous domes they had worked on, and Rugo called it, “Mount Everest compared to little small hills.” It is one of the largest mosaic installations of its kind in the world, covering more than 18,300 square feet.
The scaffolding that carried the workers to the inside of the dome weighed about 300,000 pounds, and had to be constructed inside a church, without the use of a crane. When it was completed, the scaffolding reached more than 150 feet above the floor of the basilica’s nave, supporting a platform inside of the dome that was 16 stories high.
“There were a few people that said ‘No, you can never do it,’” said Jonke. “When you tell me, ‘You can’t do something,’ that gives me the energy and confidence to pull it off.”
Jonke and his team worked around the clock to ensure that everything was done safely, quickly, and without interrupting any of the important events held at the basilica. Throughout the entire process, there was only one Sunday when Masses could not be celebrated.
“There was no room for mistakes,” said Jonke. “…Everything had to be right when it comes out.”
Rugo called the project an “unbelievable undertaking,” noting that the original schedule had the project taking three and a half years, but they did it in two – and finished six weeks early, without any injuries or lost time.
“It has been a really hall of fame performance by the workmen in the field,” said Rugo. “…We are very, very proud of the accomplishment.”
Jonke has worked on many of the shrine’s projects with Rugo Stone, and every time he begins a new one, his mom reminds him about his grandfather, who was a Third Degree Knight of Columbus in Akron, Ohio at the time that the Knights were raising the funds to build the tower at the southwest corner of the shrine.
Jonke’s grandfather, who died before Jonke was born, became very interested in the construction of the new National Shrine. Every time he went to go visit his son in Maryland, he would bring his family to walk around the shrine to see progress of the construction, and always wanted to see the shrine completed. Little did he know, his grandson would play a large role in making that happen.
In addition to being grateful that he got to see his grandfather’s dream come true, Jonke said he feels privileged to get to complete the work of so many other stone masons who have worked on the shrine throughout the nearly 100 years in which it has been underway.
“There’s been stone masons working here since the ground breaking. A lot of them will never get to see it complete,” said Jonke. “It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to finish a 100-year-old building.”
The way everything in the project “worked like clockwork” was a testament to the skill of the workers, Jonke said. But he also knew that some parts of the project’s success were due to something or someone out of their control.
“No matter how much you plan for something, anything can go wrong,” he said. “…There was something there helping me along.”
Jonke and Rugo are both Catholic, and, “It’s a special thing to us knowing we have had a big hand in the last 20 years of embellishing the largest church in North America,” said Rugo, whose 12-year-old son was an altar server at the Dec. 8 Dedication Mass in the basilica, celebrated by Cardinal Donald Wuerl.
Being around the shine and learning more about the significance of the Virgin Mary, the saints, and the different cultures in the Church has been “like a second catechism,” Rugo added.
Rugo expressed gratitude to Msgr. Walter Rossi, the basilica’s rector, and to Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, for trusting Rugo Stone to work on the project, and said he was grateful to God that they were able to deliver it on time.
“I am happy it’s done for the basilica, but I am sad it is over, because it was an incredible process to be a part of,” he said.
Now there is a shiny new mosaic above that same place where Jonke had once looked up, wondering how they would complete the project. On Christmas Eve when he goes to watch his two kids in the Christmas pageant at the basilica, he will be able to look up into that Great Dome and remember how Rugo Stone did what other people told him was impossible.
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