Priest’s harmonica helps encounter people wherever he is

Matthew Moix, eighth grader (left), and Reed Stephens, second grader, display their harmonica skills March 16 to Father Stephen Gadberry at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Rogers.
Matthew Moix, eighth grader (left), and Reed Stephens, second grader, display their harmonica skills March 16 to Father Stephen Gadberry at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Rogers.

ROGERS — He calls himself the Ambassador of the Harmonica.

And he may be right. Few champion the lowly, poor man’s instrument, small enough to fit in your pocket, as much as Father Stephen Gadberry. In fact, Father Gadberry, 31, is not your half-hearted weekend enthusiast, but a full-time, always-has-one-or two-in-his-pocket, hard core promoter.

After all, at one time his collection was at its high of 73 harmonicas. But after an intervention of sorts, as he says jokingly, the collection has been culled to a more manageable 55.

Father Gadberry, currently an associate pastor at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Rogers, began his love affair with the harmonica quite innocently enough when he received one as a gift from his mother at Christmas in 2010.

“Every Christmas, mom gives us something to learn, like crocheting (yes, he has crocheted a blanket), painting (not his favorite) or a logic book (he continues to ask questions),” Father Gadberry said.

But, the year he got the harmonica in the key of “C” was a game changer.

He took it back with him to seminary and began searching YouTube for instructional videos and would just play along with songs on the radio learning them one note at a time.

His admiration progressed from there. He began collecting harmonicas at music stores and on Ebay and receiving them as gifts. Father Gadberry even attended the World Harmonica Festival in Germany in 2013 while he was studying as a seminarian in Rome from 2012-2016.

“My eyes were opened to the potential of the little harmonica,” he said with a smile.

Oftentimes, he recounted, while walking to and from classes in Rome, he would stop and join a band on a street corner for an impromptu concert.

Today his collection boasts some sentimental gifts and some superstar finds like the one he received from the harmonica player, Mickey Raphael, a band member of country music great Willie Nelson. Additionally, he has a Seydel harmonica he claims is the “Rolls-Royce” of his collection for its rich sound. Another highlight since he started playing the harmonica has been meeting up one afternoon with Tollak Ollestad, a world-renowned harmonica player, while in Rome and attending a concert with him.

Nevertheless, what Father Gadberry enjoys most about the harmonica is how portable and easy it is to pull out, play a tune and spread some joy.

Whether he is visiting a nursing home, the playground, the classroom or giving a homily, he finds the harmonica has the magic to make people smile no matter where they are.

“I realized it helped me encounter people,” he says.

“I always have a couple of harmonicas in my pocket that I can pull out when needed,” he admitted.

Mostly, though, he said he likes to play them when he is praying or on the road.

“There are times when I have an emotion or a feeling and if I try to express it, words don’t always suffice. Music can express those emotions. It’s so unique.”

Not surprisingly, the little instrument has made a few appearances since his arrival at St. Vincent de Paul last year.

“I found there are a lot of parallels with the spiritual life,” explained Gadberry, who served in the military from 2005-2008, “Music and prayer for them to be authentic and true, we have to confront our utter, raw humanity.”

In a talk Father Gadberry gave March 6 at St. Stephen Church in Bentonville on “St. Augustine, the Blues and Lent,” he echoed a point made by St. Augustine on the subject of music. “About music, St. Augustine said, ‘I hear things in the material world, but it affects me in a spiritual way,’” he said. “Music and our senses have a way of affecting our soul.”

Likewise, for Father Gadberry this belief resounds in how he uses the harmonica to express emotions as well. “The blues, too, were born out of spirituals during the time of slavery,” he said. “Singing was a refuge that allowed them to transcend reality. It expressed their emotions when they had nothing, but through song they could still express hope.”

Naturally, Father Gadberry’s enthusiasm for the tiny instrument is contagious.

A few students at the school have acquired their own harmonicas to give it a try. Reed Stephens, a second grader, received his harmonica as a gift at Christmas and put it in his pocket to take to school. Reed was hoping for a chance encounter with Father Gadberry to proudly show him. He got the chance one day on the playground and, of course, a dueling, double harmonica fest ensued.

Matthew Moix, an eighth grader who plays the piano at Masses and is proficient at several instruments, added the harmonica to his repertoire with Father Gadberry’s encouragement.

“I pulled an old harmonica out to entertain a young nephew one weekend and had fun,” Moix said.

Pastor Msgr. David LeSieur knows Father Gadberry and his harmonica are never far apart.

“One of my favorite memories with Father Stephen,” Msgr. LeSieur said, “was when we were concelebrating at a school children’s Mass in the fall and I was giving the homily. I was speaking about practicing our faith and compared it to practicing music, like Father Stephen and his harmonica. At that moment, Father pulled his harmonica out of his pocket and played a perfect scale. The kids gave him an ovation. This was all impromptu.”

Quite humbly, Father Gadberry assures the casual listener that anyone can play it. “If you can breathe in and out, you can’t go wrong.”

Alesia Schaefer

Alesia Schaefer has been a Arkansas Catholic reporter and columnist from Northwest Arkansas for more than 10 years. A member of St. Vincent de Paul Church in Rogers, she works as admissions director and cross country coach at Ozark Catholic Academy in Tontitown.

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