Gallup, New Mexico is home to the poorest Catholic diocese in the entire United States, with over 60,000 total parishioners across 55,000 square miles. Unable to afford to keep young men in seminary, one priest is turning to help in an unlikely place: classic American muscle cars.
Father Matthew Keller is the rector of the diocese’s mother church, the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Gallup and also the vicar general for the entire Diocese of Gallup. Father Keller says he was a “car guy” growing up and built his first car at the age of 16 learning the basics from his father about restoring classic cars. At age 15, he bought and began restoring his first car, a Malibu Super Sport.
However, he joined the seminary at age 30, selling his beloved 1964 Chevy Malibu SS and opting to leave his hobby behind. After graduating seminary, his passions for hot rods didn’t stray far too far. One day a friend said he thought Father Keller should buy a car, sparking the idea to restore and donate muscle cars as a way to raise funds for the poor diocese’s vocations.
“One of my friends, who knew I was into cars, we were talking and I was saying I was missing working on cars, he said, ‘You should get a car to work on with the seminarians and use it as a human formation project,’ He was thinking of a personal car for me or the vocations office to use. I thought about this and thought it was a great idea for a fundraiser.”
Father Keller began his search for a vehicle and eventually, a 1972 Chevelle was donated to him. Pitching the idea as a great way to raise funds and as a way to help seminarians get closer to each other, he recruited 20 people to his team and after two years of hard work the restored hot rod was raffled off. He sold thousands of tickets and raised over 140,000 dollars. The project was so successful before they were even done they were already planning to raffle off another car.
“Before we were even done with the Chevelle, a second opportunity came along.”
Father Keller’s next project was also wildly successful, raffling off a 1969 Pontiac Firebird convertible and raising another 100,000 dollars. Not only did the raffle raise crucial funds for vocations, but served as a great way to evangelize and bond the community together.
“It’s been fantastic. I’m glad I’m able to use a talent God gave me and do some good with it. One of the surprise elements of the project was how it turned into a community bonding. There was an opportunity for evangelization. Men who wouldn’t have come in the front door of a church are coming in the back door. They go to work on a car, and we start talking about spiritual things. It’s something I would never have expected.”
This year, Father Keller and his team of seminarians and community members are raffling off another classic American muscle car, this time a 1978 Pontiac Trans Am endearingly named “Old Bandit.”
This year’s car is a Starlight Black ’78 T-Top Trans Am with gold SE style pinstriping and a numbers-matching 400 cid V8 in a detailed factory-correct engine compartment. This Bandit Tribute car comes with air conditioning, automatic overdrive transmission, and only 66,000 miles. Inside is an immaculate carmine vinyl interior with bucket seats and a classic engine-turned dash bezel. Buy a ticket and ‘watch old Bandit run!'”