As a boy growing up in the Nashville area, Chris Gautsch never expected to perform on the most well-known stage in the city – the Grand Ole Opry — especially as God led him to the path of religious life with the Order of Preachers in the Province of St. Joseph.
But the unexpected came to fruition as Father Peter Gautsch, OP, along with six of his fellow Dominican friars, graced the Opry stage as the Hillbilly Thomists during the Welcoming Concert for the 140th annual Knights of Columbus Supreme Convention Monday, Aug. 1.
“It’s a dream, and growing up in Nashville, I never, ever imagined I’d be on that stage,” Father Peter said. “It was a total thrill.”
Father Peter, a 2007 graduate of Pope John Paul II Preparatory School in Hendersonville, contemplated the priesthood for years.
“When I was young, I grew up serving Mass (at St. John Vianney Church in Gallatin), and I remember thinking how much I like serving Mass and that maybe I would want to be a priest because I liked being up (on the altar) during Mass,” Father Peter said. “But I had a pretty uninformed and naïve view of what the priesthood was about at that time.”
By the time he reached high school, he thought differently of the idea saying, “I became convinced that that probably wasn’t what God had in store for me.”
But then, when he was a junior at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, he was given an opportunity to spend a semester abroad in Rome at the Angelicum, formally known as the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, and “the idea of the priesthood and religious life really came back in a big way,” he said.
“I was a little older and I had learned a little more about the priesthood and religious life, so I think I was better prepared to ponder that although it was scary when the idea first came back to me. But it was also a real grace,” Father Peter said.
That time also allowed him to learn about the Dominican Order, since the order oversees the university.
“The more I learned about the Dominican Order, the more I really came to love it and found that I really thought that I was made for that,” Father Peter said.
And it was the reading of the accounts of the miraculous catches of fish by Peter in Luke 5 and John 21 that really confirmed his decision, particularly when he was given the opportunity to travel to the Holy Land during his senior year of college, where he visited the Sea of Galilee.
“There was just a powerful grace again of thinking that God was speaking to me,” Father Peter recalled. “‘You guy, sitting there on the rocks. Feed my sheep, feed my sheep.’
“From that point on, I was pretty sure this is what I was going to do, and this is how God wanted me to serve him and how he wanted to sanctify me,” he said.
So, immediately following his graduation from Notre Dame in 2011, from which he received a bachelor’s degree in theology and music, he entered the novitiate for the Dominican Order in 2011 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Following that year of preparation, he moved to the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., in 2012, and was eventually ordained in 2018.
During his time at the Dominican House of Studies, he became close with several of his brothers and found that they enjoyed playing music, coming together once a week to play some of their favorite tunes.
As word spread about their jam sessions, they began to play for receptions at ordinations and other small events, as well as recorded sacred music CDs to sell with the proceeds benefiting the men in formation at the Dominican House of Studies. Eventually, they adopted their name Hillbilly Thomists to fit their bluegrass sound that started to develop and their training in Thomism.
Then, as CD sales went up, the group began receiving letters from people wanting them to come and perform for an event. So, they cleared their calendars and have been touring the country for the last two weeks to fulfill some of those requests, one of which was the invitation from the Knights of Columbus to perform for convention attendees.
“They said, ‘By the way, it’s going to be at the Grand Ole Opry’ and our jaws all dropped,” Father Peter recalled. “The exciting thing about it for me, aside from just being on that stage and playing, is this is my home, this is where I grew up, so to be able to have friends and family come join in that was amazing.
“Plus, the Knights, whether they know of our band or not, we share the Catholic faith,” he said. “It was really neat to be able to bring that to that stage and share the music and the faith with so many people.”
And through their music, Father Peter said he hopes they’re carrying out their mission as preachers.
“The origins of the way the band came about was from our fraternal life, our common life together, but it was directed towards preaching,” Father Peter said. “Our songs, there are many common themes like hope in God, the reality of grace, the goodness of creation” and more.
“What we hope for our music is that it helps people to think about God and to hope in him and to see the goodness and joy that comes from living for him and directing everything in one’s life towards him.”
For more information, visit hillbillythomists.com.