Fr. Eric Gilbaugh, pastor of St. John Vianney parish in Belgrade, has long been an auto enthusiast. When he can, he also loves bringing his passion into his ministry. “I love working on old cars, and I’ve always wanted to start a car club,” Fr. Gilbaugh said. “As the idea developed, I thought: why not fathers and sons?” 

“I remember we were commuting back from Mass in Three Forks when Father first mentioned the idea to me,” said Deacon Wayne Thompson, a permanent deacon at St. John Vianney. “Father originally conceived it as an opportunity for some of the young men in the parish to get more involved, and then he thought that it would also be great for the dads.” 

Deacon Thompson was ordained to the Diaconate in 2009 in California. In 2017, he and his wife assumed the responsibility of raising their three grandsons. They moved up to Montana in 2020, and Deacon Thompson began serving as deacon for the parish. Upon hearing about the club, he knew it would be a great experience for him and his grandsons. 

With the idea in place, Fr. Gilbaugh began putting the details together and hunting down parts. He knew just which car he wanted the club to assemble: a Ford Model T.  

Fr. Eric Gilbaugh (bottom center) works under the engine as the group helps and observes.

“I have restored a few Model T cars over the years. They are the easiest ones for beginners to get into,” said Fr. Gilbaugh. “I got two of every part, tracking them down from all over the place. We found one of the motors in a barn in Oregon, which had probably been sitting there for over 50 years.” 

With everything ready, the club first convened one Sunday after Mass in May of 2022. By the end of the process, 14 boys and 7 fathers would take part in trying to resurrect the old Ford. Scott Quinn, a parishioner in Belgrade since 2006, brought his three older boys to the first meeting, which began with a history lesson. 

“When we first gathered, we learned the history of the Model T, and looked at all of the parts, most of which had been sitting for 50-80 years,” Quinn said. “Our first task was to pick the best part of each set of two, and then we began to grind down to the bare metal, because there was a lot of rust.” 

“A lot of rust is putting it lightly,” said Deacon Thompson. “Many of these parts, including the motor, had rusted internally. I’m a diesel mechanic, and when I saw this old motor which wouldn’t turn over, I went over to Father Gilbaugh and said, ‘I’m sorry Father, but this thing will never run!” 

The club met on and off during the summer, and then spent the long winter indoors cleaning and repainting parts. As spring arrived, the crew finally completed assembly of the vehicle and turned their attention to completing the body.  

Fr. Gilbaugh said, “We had some old oak pews, tables, and desks that were no longer going to be used, some of them from the same era as the car itself, and we reused that wood for the floorboards and seats.”

Scott Quinn (right) works on an axle with his son, Anthony.

Then, it was time to start it up. The elation was electric when the engine roared to life, one time after another as each of the boys, and most of the dads, took a turn turning the hand crank on the front of the vehicle. 

“Getting all the boys to turn that crank was such a victory moment,” Quinn said. 

“It was amazing,” said Deacon Thompson. “Even my youngest, who was eight at the time, was able to turn the engine over. And the look on those boys’ faces as they drove that car around with Father, wow. I really didn’t think that car would ever run, and so I had to go to Father and say, ‘Mea culpa mea culpa!’” 

A few months later, the club was able to display their finished Model T at the Parish picnic, offering rides to their fellow parishioners.  

Of that day, Fr. Gilbaugh said, “There was a great sense of accomplishment. In a little over a year, we took a piece of greasy junk and turned it into a living machine that they could give people rides in. Before, none of the boys, and only a few of the fathers, could name the parts of a car or how they worked, but now when I say axle or piston, they know what all that is. It was great to teach some skills, to cultivate relationships between fathers and sons, and to get the boys together and get to know each other.” 

Another benefit that arose from the club was the time the men of the parish got to spend with their pastor. 

Pat Matthews (left) and his son, Anthony, work on parts of the car motor.

“It was a really fun process, which not only allowed time for me to be with my boys, but the mentorship opportunity with their home priest was also wonderful,” said Quinn. “It was great for the boys to see him outside of the church, to see that he’s a person with hobbies and interests.”  

“A priest can do cool things!” added Deacon Thompson. “It was nice that they all got to see that and see the humanity and humbleness of their priest through a long and arduous project like this.”

Even beyond the practical experience gained, and the relationships formed and strengthened, Deacon Thompson also saw something deeper happening in the hearts of the young men involved in the club. In his final reflections, he said, “It was an experience I’ll never forget, and the boys learned a lot. But it was more than just learning mechanics and more than just father-son bonding. It was learning how to persevere, to make something happen. They’ll see what they had in their hands and how their camaraderie brought it to life. I can’t wait for the next one!”

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