'V8s for Vocations' shows God can use 'all our gifts'

Father Matthew Keller, rector of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Gallup, New Mexico, and vicar general for the Diocese of Gallup, grew up a “car guy,” he said, learning from his father the basics of restoring classic cars. At age 15, young Matt bought and began restoring his first car, a Malibu Super Sport.

At age 30, he opted to leave his hobby behind and study for the priesthood, only to have it resurface years later while serving as Gallup’s vocations director. The diocese was desperately short of funds for seminarian education, so he came up with the idea of restoring a 1972 Chevrolet Chevelle and raffling it off to help pay the expenses of the five seminarians the diocese had at the time. Dubbed “V8s for Vocations,” (v8forvocations.org) the raffle was a hit, selling thousands of tickets and raising $140,000.

The success led him to restore a second car, a 1969 Pontiac Firebird Convertible, and raffle it off this past June, raising another $100,000. The plan is now to raffle off one classic car per year, with the next prize to be a 1978 Pontiac Trans Am.

“I thought I had left my car hobby behind, and I’d be driving a Honda Civic the rest of my life,” he mused. “Now I can see why God gave me my skills with cars. Nothing goes to waste. God has a plan.”

Nation’s poorest diocese

Gallup is a large diocese geographically, yet with a small population of Catholics. It is situated in northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico, and includes seven Indian reservations. Its 52 parishes and 22 missions serve 63,000 Catholics with 34 diocesan priests. Many of its Catholics are from the large Navajo reservation. It is the nation’s poorest diocese, with high unemployment and widespread poverty on the reservations.

Further aggravating the diocese’s financial picture was its recent bankruptcy relating to clergy sexual abuse, resulting in payouts of around $20 million to 57 victims. The diocese was forced to sell its chancery office to help fund the settlement.

The limited means of many of the diocese’s Catholics combined with the bankruptcy have caused a “big struggle” and created a situation in which “we can barely keep our nose above water,” admitted Father Keller. Furthermore, he said, “it is difficult for us to afford to keep guys in the seminary.” Hence, the funds raised through V8s for Vocations have proven a godsend.

Raised on the reservation

Father Keller grew up on an Indian reservation near Gallup; his father was an employee of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In his 20s he had a self-described “conversion experience” that would lead him to the priesthood. He chose to be a seminarian for Gallup, he said, as he was familiar with and wanted to serve in the area. He is one of Gallup’s few native vocations; many of its priests are members of religious communities sent in to serve the region. Additionally, its priests are typically assigned to multiple locations; his first assignment after ordination had him serving at five parishes.

A friend in the Knights of Columbus knew of Father Keller’s interest in classic cars and suggested that restoring such a car would be a good “camaraderie thing” for the diocesan seminarians. He agreed, and later realized that selling the restored cars would make an excellent fundraiser for the diocese.

He approached Bishop James S. Wall of Gallup with the idea, and the bishop offered his endorsement.

“I’m a creative guy, but not the most practical,” Father Keller said. “When the bishop said he liked the idea, I thought, ‘I know I’m doing God’s will if my bishop tells me to do it!’”

The bishop has since taken both of the raffled cars on test drives, Father Keller said, “and has been in the middle of things since we started.”

The 1969 Pontiac Firebird Convertible seen during restoration by Father Keller’s team. Courtesy photo

Seven volunteers

Since both of the first two raffled cars had to be completely taken apart and rebuilt, Father Keller knew he’d need many volunteers to help over many months. A core group of seven volunteers has since emerged; among the core group is body shop owner Ted Gonzales, who recalled the first time he met the priest: “Father Matt came into my shop wearing his cassock, and I thought [sarcastically], ‘Yeah, this guy really must know a lot about cars.’”

But to his surprise, not only did Father Keller know cars, the pair “hit it off” immediately. Gonzales then help recruit additional volunteers in the field.

“I’d find someone who knew transmissions, motors, painting or whatever, and the restoration would become a group effort,” Gonzales said. “I was surprised what a community-building project it proved to be. Guys would talk, interact, get to know one other and have a good time.”

Brandon Garcia, a mechanic, was another recruited by Father Keller. The pair met when he was “going through the motions of getting married in the Catholic Church.” The two talked and discovered they shared a passion for cars. “When I told him I built engines, he asked me to help,” Garcia said.

Garcia is pleased he agreed.

“It’s been fantastic. I’m glad I’m able to use a talent God gave me and do some good with it.”

There have been other donations of services; a local body shop, for example, sought out Father Keller and volunteered to paint the Firebird.

One surprise was that V8s for Vocations has become an evangelization program.

“Men who wouldn’t have come in the front door of a church are coming in the back door,” Father Keller said. “They go to work on a car, and we start talking about spiritual things. It’s something I never would have expected.”

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The work on the cars is being done in a converted three-car garage on the Sacred Heart Cathedral grounds. The Trans Am has low mileage and will require little restoration. “It’s in good shape and won’t need much work,” Gonzales said.

The next major project will be the complete restoration of a 1966 Mustang convertible. Father expects the Mustang restoration to take two years, so he anticipates that will be auctioned off in 2019.

Father Keller said he’s learned much from V8s for Vocations, including how generous members of the community can be when they have a worthy cause to support. Their generosity, in turn, can be an inspiration to the seminarians they support. He also has learned that God can use “all of our gifts, whatever they may be, for the kingdom of God.”

“V8s for Vocations has been a real gift for me and for the community,” Father Keller said. “We’ve developed a real passion for it.”

Jim Graves writes from California.