The Rev. Matthew Keller is a firm believer in forgiveness, second chances and redemption. That includes cars.
Father Keller, vocations director with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Gallup, N.M., “grew up in a car-rich environment” and never lost his love for automobiles, even after he received a higher calling. When one of Keller’s parishioners suggested he restore a car, Keller took it a step further. He thought that rebuilding a classic, raffling it off and using the proceeds to send a prospective priest to seminary school would be a great way to build fraternity and do God’s work at the same time.
“I’ve always loved cars,” said Keller, 50. “My dad had a super-charged ’57 Studebaker Golden Hawk, and my first car was a ’64 Malibu SS. My dad taught me a lot – most of what I know mechanically – and I was in vocational school in high school, so we fixed up the Malibu and about a half dozen cars. I sold my car when I went to college (Ft. Lewis College in Durango, Colo.), and it was the worst decision I ever made.”
He’s making up for it by restoring a 1972 Chevrolet Chevelle SS with the help of seminary students and community volunteers. It will be raffled off on Dec. 12.
“The training and development of priests is expensive,” Keller said. “I thought it would be fun to restore a classic and help one of these young men at the same time.”
“V-8s for Vocations” was born in June 2014 when a parishioner bought the Chevelle and donated it to the cause. “It was a daily driver – a bit of a basket case,” Keller said. In the 17 months since, Keller’s team has been working tirelessly to rebuild the Chevelle in Sacred Heart Cathedral’s garage. “So many people have helped us out with their time and expertise – mechanics, car guys, all kinds of people. Some men have walked into the garage in the back of the church who might not walk through the front doors. The car has given us a great opportunity to minister to them.”
Keller estimates that 50-60 volunteers have played a role in the Chevelle project, but “there’s a group of about 12 who have been fully committed to it” – a number with added significance to anyone familiar with the Bible. “It’s funny and perfect at the same time,” Keller said.
Nothing in the frame-off restoration has been overlooked. The Chevelle is powered by a 454-cid big-block Chevy engine (bored to 468) that generates approximately 450 horsepower and 500 cu.-ft. of torque – work led by Brandon Garcia. It has a M20 Muncie four-speed transmission and a 12-bolt posi stuffed with 373 gears. The frame and suspension have been powder coated, a three-month job led by Phillip Peña. The car has new wiring, steering and front-end components, front and rear inner fenders, floor pans, rear quarters, clutch, glass, shifter and clutch linkage, gas tank, fuel lines, brake lines, brake assembly, interior, vinyl top and more. The final touch will be a black and white paint job – “priestly colors,” Keller said.
Raffle tickets are $25 each (available at www.v8forvocations.org), and the winner will not be required to cover the taxes. “We’re paying those,” Keller said. “We want the winner to be able to drive the car away without worrying about that.” He said date of the drawing is significant because it coincides with “the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the day of diaconate ordinations,” as well as the 75th anniversary of the Diocese of Gallup and the 60th anniversary of its Sacred Heart Cathedral.
Keller admits that after nearly a year and a half of work, it will be difficult to see the Chevelle go.
“This is my mid-life crisis,” he joked. “I thought (working on cars) was behind me, but God had other plans. It’s been a lot of fun, and it’s been a way to bring people together. I’m trying not to get attached to it – just finish the car, raffle it and say goodbye to it.”
Until another one comes along.
“If God is willing,” Keller said, “so am I.”