ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Clerical collars and classic cars don’t immediately jump to mind as a natural pairing.
But one Gallup priest’s youthful passion for muscle cars led to a project that brought the town together in a unique fundraising effort to help educate young men to follow their calling to serve in the church.
The Rev. Matthew Keller left his grease monkey days behind when he took the cloth, but he always remembered that ’64 Malibu he and his dad worked on when he was a teen in Bloomfield.
Fast forward a few years and he’s rector of the cathedral in Gallup, a diocese that’s struggling to find enough priests to serve its many parishes.
For those called to the priesthood, training is a long and expensive process requiring a four-year bachelor degree followed by several years of graduate-level study at a seminary out of state. New Mexico has no Catholic seminary.
Gallup is a poor diocese without deep pockets to help educate future priests. That’s where the cars and clerical collar came together.
V8s For Vocations, a project Keller started in 2014, provided a way for him to get back into his mechanic’s overalls and raise money to send students for seminary training.
A community member donated the beat-up 1972 Chevrolet Chevelle Super Sport. Then Keller and a team of Gallup residents, local hot rod enthusiasts and other car specialists, spent months restoring it to show condition. By selling $25 raffle tickets to local residents and people out of state and even overseas, they raised $140,000 toward the cause.
“I didn’t think we would get anywhere close to that,” said Keller.
Transforming that decrepit muscle car was no easy task.
“It was a beater car. The body was rusty and dented. The interior looked like a dog had been living in it. It looked like something you’d find out in a field somewhere,” said career mechanic Brandon Garcia, who rebuilt the engine.
Garcia got involved after he met Keller when he was preparing to get married in the Catholic church in Gallup and found they shared a passion.
“I didn’t know he was a car person. You don’t really think of priests as car people,” Garcia said.
Keller said experts like Garcia and local hot rod builder Ted Gonzales were invaluable as mentors to him and the other volunteers working on the project.
Gonzales vouched for the enormity of the Chevelle challenge.
“It was a very, very rough car. We basically built the car from the ground up. We dismantled it 100 percent; every nut and bolt was taken off of that car,” Gonzales said.
The restoration project took on a life of its own. People from all over Gallup dropped by to ask how it was going and volunteer to help.
“It was more than just building the car,” Gonzales said. “It was getting the community involved. It was the talk of the town.”
A local man, Don Good, co-owner of a sports lounge in Gallup, was the winner.
Eager to continuing raising money for the cause, Keller and his team of volunteers are now working on a new restoration project, a Carousel Red 1969 Pontiac Firebird convertible.
Keller said the car’s original owner died and left it to his son who wasn’t interested in driving it, so the vehicle was in great condition compared to the first car they worked on.
“The interior was intact, it had the original drive train and only 79,000 miles on the clock,” said Keller.
Restoration work includes replacing all the gaskets, hoses, clamps and giving it a spanking new paint job.
The drawing for the fully restored Firebird will be on June 17. Tickets that cost $25 can be purchased online at v8forvocations.org. The cost of taxes and other fees are covered so the winner will not have to pay anything more than the ticket price. The winner need not be present for the drawing, but if they live out of state they must arrange for shipping the car.