Gearing Up for Vocations
Gallup Knights restore classic cars to raise funds for priestly vocations in their mission diocese
by Carl Bunderson | photos by Samantha Mary Photography
When a parishioner donated a beat up 1972 Chevrolet Chevelle SS in 2014, Father Matthew Keller saw it as a way to build fraternity among parishioners, mechanics and local car guys, many of whom are Knights.
Father Keller, who is the New Mexico state chaplain for the Knights of Columbus, has been restoring hot rods for several years now. When he isn’t celebrating Mass or hearing confessions, the best place to look for him tends to be the garage of Gallup’s Sacred Heart Cathedral, fixing up a classic muscle car. This past summer, it was a carousel red 1969 Pontiac Firebird convertible.
The cars are raffled off to support the education of seminarians of the Diocese of Gallup, which is the poorest in the nation. The project, called V8s for Vocations, is a fruit of Father Keller’s lifelong love of cars.
“God gave us gifts and talents, and growing up this was a big part of my life,” he said.
He was also inspired to use the opportunity to help support the diocese’s seminarians. The initial project netted $140,000 in 2016, and this past year, the refurbished Firebird raised an additional $107,000 for seminarian tuition.
Father Keller, who serves as rector of the cathedral and vicar general of the Gallup Diocese, remembers vividly the first classic car he rebuilt.
“I was 15 when I brought home my first car — a ‘64 Malibu Super Sport. I fixed it up, and it was gorgeous,” he said. “My father taught me most of what I know about being a mechanic. My brother and I worked on cars together, so it was something that I shared in common with my family; it was a bonding thing.”
It was also something Father Keller thought he had put behind him when he went to seminary. “I thought I’d just be using practical cars the rest of my life for ministry,” he said.
But the interest remained, and he prayed about his latent skills. “I thought, ‘I’ve got talents and interests and abilities that aren’t being put to use for the Kingdom,’ and that all got revealed to me as this started to unfold: This is why God bothered to let me do all that stuff as a youth, because I can use it for the sake of the Kingdom.”
When the Chevy Chevelle was donated in 2014, Father Keller got to work.
“Right away, men in the parish started hearing about it and wanted to get involved,” he said. “It created tons of good will; there were people who wouldn’t come into the front doors of the cathedral, but would come into the garage at the back of the cathedral.”
“There are always people who just have burdens, so I heard confessions back here as well,” Father Keller added. “It’s definitely the case that there are men practicing their Catholic faith now as a result of this project.”
While V8s for Vocations was born of Father Keller’s love for working on cars, he credits its fruition as a vocations project to Supreme Director Patrick Mason, state deputy of New Mexico.
“It was really his prompting that helped me think about this in a nonpersonal way, as a project for vocations,” Father Keller affirmed. “Patrick definitely was the spark for that.”
The project attracted a number of Knights from the beginning. According to Mason, “It started with a lot of Knights just helping Father Keller work on the car.”
It was natural for Knights to embrace the project as a means to support vocations.
“Vocations are central to our mission because as we build the domestic Church and strengthen our parishes, a key part of that is increasing vocations to the priesthood,” Mason explained. “Without priests, we don’t have a strong parish, and if we don’t have strong parishes, we can’t have strong families.”
For Father Josh Mayer, vocations director of the diocese, the holy camaraderie he has seen in the project is among its best aspects.
“When I got ordained in 2015, there was usually someone in there working on the car, sometimes two or three guys, who just really liked Father Keller,” explained Father Mayer, who is a member of Fray Marcos Council 1783 in Gallup. “They were able to spend time with a good priest who was approachable, so it had a really simple, unexpected evangelical component that just wasn’t really the plan, but ended up being one of the most beautiful things about it.”
SUPPORT OF THE MISSION
Bishop James S. Wall of Gallup, a member of Father Patterson Council 3121 in Chandler, Ariz., has been an enthusiastic supporter of the V8s for Vocations initiative from the beginning.
“At the heart of the program is the salus animarum — the salvation of souls,” he said. “The primary purpose is to raise funds for the formation of priests, who will minister to the people entrusted to their care.”
Gallup is a mission diocese spanning northern New Mexico and Arizona, with fewer than 25 active diocesan priests serving some 65 parishes and missions that consist largely of indigenous populations, including the Navajo Nation.
To date, six seminarians have benefited from V8s for Vocations, including four men ordained in recent years and two currently in formation. One of the current seminarians is Mitchell Brown, a transitional deacon who is studying at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. Raised in Grants, N.M., about an hour east of Gallup, he will become one of the few priests native to the diocese when he is ordained next June.
Aside from the obvious monetary assistance for tuition and associated costs of seminary education, which runs $26,000 per year on average, he has observed that the project presents priests as real men with interests and hobbies.
“It has given people a chance to see that there is more to the priesthood than just what they see on Sunday,” said Deacon Mitchell, who is a member of St. Teresa of Avila Council 3683 in Grants. “It’s helped people to see the priesthood as truly human rather than something ethereal.”
In 2016, at a First Degree exemplification and meeting of state officers, the Knights of Columbus held a “panel pulling party” with the Firebird.
“Councils could volunteer to take a panel of the car back to their council to fix up themselves,” Mason explained. Local councils saw to it that the panels were repaired, sanded and primed.
Each council brought their panel back to the midyear meeting in Las Cruces, where members voted on the best panel. The winning panel’s council received a contribution to its Refund Support Vocations Program (RSVP) account, which it uses annually to support vocations.
“That’s how we got the body work done on the Firebird,” Father Keller said. “It worked out really well, and the only complaint we got was from people who didn’t hear about it and weren’t able to participate.”
Father Keller already has a car ready for next summer’s raffle: a black 1978 Pontiac Trans Am with a K of C license plate on the nose. Three more cars have already been donated to the project as well: a 1966 Ford Mustang convertible, a 1966 Plymouth Sport Fury, and a 1966 Chevrolet Caprice.
“People love the idea and want to participate in it,” said Father Keller. “God planted the seed and blessed it, and that’s why it has grown so much on its own. We have to work — God doesn’t take that part away, but he really has blessed the results.”
CARL BUNDERSON is a reporter for Catholic News Agency/EWTN News based in Denver, Colo. He is a member of Longmont (Colo.) Council 1313.
A PASSION FOR CARS AND CHARITY
AMONG THE SCORES of K of C sponsored car shows across the county each year, one is held just steps away from a saint. The annual Carmel Mission Classic and Blessing of the Automobiles takes place next to the basilica where St. Junípero Serra is buried at Mission San Carlos Borroméo in Carmel, Calif. Hosted by Carmel Mission Council 4593, the event was launched in 2013 by council member and former LAPD officer Frank DiPaola and former NYPD officer Richard Pepe of St. Columbanus Council 14991 in Cortlandt Manor, N.Y.
Held every August as part of Monterey Car Week, the Carmel Mission Classic features some 50 vintage and rare classic cars that are blessed by Bishop Richard Garcia of Monterey, accompanied by a Fourth Degree honor guard. Everything from vintage Model T Speedsters to Rolls-Royces to pre-war Alfa Romeos are on display. Some of the more eyebrow-raising automobiles have included Cary Grant’s 1951 Bentley Continental, Rita Hayworth’s 1953 Cadillac Series 62 Coupe (one of only two built) and Steve McQueen’s 1957 Jaguar XKSS. The daylong event also includes entertainment by local musicians, gourmet food and tastings hosted by area wineries.
“This car show has something for everyone,” said DiPaola, who concludes the show with a presentation of awards. “The Mission feeds the soul, cars and wine feed the senses, and our council raises funds for charity.”
The 2017 event attracted more than 1,000 visitors and raised over $100,000 for local charities and institutions supported by Council 4593, such as Carmel Mission’s Junipero Serra School, the St. Vincent de Paul Farm Workers Program, the Carmelite Monastery of Our Lady and St. Therese and the ongoing restoration of the mission’s basilica. For more information, visit carmelmissionclassic.org.