Final preparations are set for the return of AbbeyFest, the popular Catholic music festival, coming Saturday, Sept. 18 to the grounds of Daylesford Abbey in Paoli with a full slate of contemporary Catholic and Christian musical artists.

Headlining the show will be nine-time Grammy nominee and three-time Dove Award winner Matt Maher, whose hits “Lord, I Need You” and “Because He Lives (Amen)” are mainstays on Christian radio playlists.

The schedule for the all-day festival is:

12 p.m.: Gates open
12:45: Firehill Worship
1:40: The Scally Brothers
2:45: Averlis
3:50: Mass, with Archbishop Nelson Perez
5:45: We Are Messengers
7:45: Matt Maher

As the sun goes down, eucharistic adoration will emerge in the evening, followed by Maher’s show-stopping performance.

The day also will include food, merchandise, kid-friendly activities and the sacrament of reconciliation, with the focus on “faith, music and family,” said festival creator Mark Griswold, director of family life at St. Norbert Parish in Paoli.

Due to the COVID pandemic, last year’s AbbeyFest moved online as a series of Facebook Live concerts. This year as pandemic protocols have rolled back, organizers gained confidence they could hold the outdoor event “while still maintaining care and concern for everyone’s safety,” Griswold said.

Matt Maher (right) joins Mandisa during a duet at the 2017 AbbeyFest on the grounds of Daylesford Abbey in Paoli. Now in its seventh year, the popular festival will return to in-person performances after shifting to virtual concerts under COVID restrictions. (Sarah Webb)

Live music events and sports gatherings have resumed throughout the greater Philadelphia area – among them, the Made in America Festival, which drew thousands to the city’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway in early September.

That same desire for communal celebration, particularly after months of COVID-related isolation, is at the heart of this year’s AbbeyFest, said Griswold.

“Our hope is to draw families, young and old,” he said. “We have a particular appeal to the young, but we hope parents would be so engaged by the fact that kids are excited that they too would be drawn in.”

While organizers “are very upfront about (the) Catholic underpinning of the day,” he added, AbbeyFest also attracts Christians from several denominations, thanks to the broad appeal of the music.

In addition to his own career as a singer-songwriter, Maher has also penned hits for a number of acclaimed contemporary Christian artists, including Chris Tomlin, Crowder, Third Day, Jeremy Camp and Hillsong. The familiar tunes resonate with AbbeyFest’s entire audience, said Griswold, and even prompt moments of ecumenical encounter.

“Some say, ‘We didn’t know Catholics could sing like this,’” he said. “For some of our Protestant brothers and sisters, it’s an eye-opening thing to see Catholics alive in the faith.”

As an “ambassador” of faith and music, Maher introduces Catholics to worship songs they might not otherwise embrace, said Griswold – and his artistry has been part of AbbeyFest since its inception, he added.

While serving as a youth minister at St. Norbert, Griswold often walked around Daylesford Abbey in the evenings, praying his rosary and envisioning a festival on the grounds. But it wasn’t until 2013, when future AbbeyFest board chair David Wilbur moved to the parish, that the Canadian-born Maher and his music got the show going.

“I lead music at a Sunday night youth Mass, and Dave came up afterward and said, ‘You played three Matt Maher songs,’” he said. “I was shocked. Your average Catholic Mass attendee wouldn’t have known that.”

The two decided to approach Maher about performing in concert in the gym of St. Norbert’s Parish School.

“We sold out, with 600 people attending,” said Griswold. “Daylesford’s abbott at the time came up to me and said, ‘What are we going to do to top this?’ And that’s when I knew this vision would come to fruition.”

As the festival has grown since its 2014 launch, so have its ranks of volunteers, which now average about 340 – along with its expenses, which are heavily subsidized by sponsorships from Catholic businesses, since ticket sales alone do not fully fund the project.

Deacon Hank Fila, advancement director for both St. Norbert and AbbeyFest, estimates that the concert requires some $110,000 in addition to the ticket purchases, which are modestly priced and often discounted.

Both the Foundation for Catholic Education, headed by Jerry Parsons, and multi-trade contractor J.J. White have “doubled their sponsorships” this year, said Deacon Fila, since “they believe in the mission.”

“We celebrate faith and families,” he said. “It’s just a beautiful day.”

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Watch promotional video of AbbeyFest below: