Behind Dollar General, Fayetteville’s water tower is one of the main sights for people passing through the village. Photo taken in November 2023 by Kellianne Jones.

I left my hometown seventeen years ago. My parents drove me to the airport in their oversized truck, a cherry-red Ford 350 diesel that still runs nicely. I had no fear or hesitation. I was eighteen, in pursuit of dreams I continue to chase. 

What I could never have anticipated on that first trip away from our Ohio farm town is that on every visit after that, I would come to dread this familiar ending. Where our long gravel driveway intersects with the road I know my dad will turn right, toward the airport and the life I’ve chosen, instead of left toward Fayetteville, a place I always wish I could stay a little longer.

We watch the wide open farm fields fade into strip malls and cookie-cutter homes. The traffic gets heavier, and Cincinnati’s skyscrapers come into view as we cross the smokestack-lined Ohio River into Kentucky. Cincinnati is situated on the border of Ohio and its southern neighbor, Kentucky, where the airport sits.

As I get further from home, my heart seems to beat differently. The goodbyes are usually rushed, and leave me feeling empty as I make my way to the gate, to fly back to Washington D.C., where I am a journalist covering politics. It’s an exciting career, the product of a desire I’ve had since I was a preteen watching Lisa Ling tell stories of faraway places on television in my Fayetteville living room. Now I am telling stories on television, too. 

Still, as my dream to be a journalist has become my reality, I find myself on the sharp edge of some of our country’s most potent divisions. And I too feel divided.

I work at Fox News and I hail from rural America, Donald Trump’s stronghold. I believe this part of the nation has too often been demonized or misunderstood in the wild aftermath of Trump’s  2016 victory. But I also was educated at private New York universities, Syracuse and Columbia, the type of schools that are often seen as blue-state cornerstones, and the target of sharp conservative commentary. 

Maybe such divisions are part of why I need Fayetteville so much. In Washington, I feel accomplished, sophisticated. In Fayetteville, I feel genuine and balanced, reminded of where my journey began. Sometimes I wonder which way is home. 

Still, the one-stoplight town where my journey began is changing, in danger of losing its last defining characteristic. Fayetteville’s story tells us something about rural America, about how the people in the country’s less-traveled places are dealing with the slow decay of the communities they love. It is for that reason that I’ve found myself going back—digging into the town’s overlooked history and into my own heart—to find out why this seemingly unremarkable place is the way it is, why it is worth fighting for, and why I can never really leave it.


A few years ago, while on a trip to Fayetteville, I went for drinks with a childhood friend. When I handed the bartender my driver’s license from Washington, D.C., a place I lived for nearly six years, she said, “you’re a long way from home.”  I responded instinctively, “No, this is actually my home.” While my driver’s license today is from Virginia, I know my response would stay the same.

Over the years, I’ve tried to figure out why I was so attached. Some of my best friends from Fayetteville left too, yet they rarely visit, and they even condemn the town for voting heavily for former President Trump—twice. In 2016, about 76 percent of the township voted for Trump. In 2020, that percentage grew, to 79 percent. 

At Fayetteville’s only stoplight, a place sometimes jokingly referred to as “downtown Fayetteville,” two gas stations sit diagonally across the intersection. Our volunteer fire department neighbors an empty lot on one corner, and the town hall and police station share a ranch-style building on the other. Scattered across the village are a few small businesses and institutions, including a Cincinnati-style chili restaurant called Skyline; a coffee shop; a Dollar General; a bar that locals refer to as Pike Street; a hardware store; a couple of auto body shops and hair salons; and a handful of churches, including the oldest and most imposing, originally known as St. Patrick’s Church. Today, it is formally called St. Patrick’s Chapel of St. Angela Merici Catholic Church. 

Fayetteville’s surrounded by flat, vast farm fields in every direction. Those fields once were its biggest employer, but now, people mostly work in manufacturing or healthcare in Cincinnati. It is technically a village, even smaller than a town, and its people are mostly middle class, mostly didn’t go to college, and are overwhelmingly—98%—white. Its official borders don’t extend too far beyond that single stoplight at the intersection of Route 50, a cross-country highway, most of it two lanes, that connects Maryland to California, and Route 68, a state highway that you can follow south into Kentucky. 

But, unofficially, people often use “Fayetteville” interchangeably with “Perry Township,” a sixty square mile area that encompasses Fayetteville as well as smaller unincorporated enclaves that surround it: Lake Lorelei, St. Martin, Vera Cruz, and Chasetown. All of Perry Township’s 1,750 households use the same public school system and most have addresses that say they live in Fayetteville, even though these neighboring enclaves once were their own communities that never got—or stayed—incorporated. 

In all the times I’ve come and gone, Fayetteville seems to stay the same, on the surface. In fact, that sentiment is the punchline of many local jokes: “Don’t worry, it’s Fayetteville; we’ll be here when you come back.” 

And I like when people say that. Fayetteville is reliable in its familiarity, and there’s something reassuring in its resistance to change. But my hometown’s people have learned that the forces of change are inevitable.


One of Cincinnati’s earliest bishops had a dream for the rugged wilderness area on the outskirts of the city: he wanted to create a Catholic enclave for the poor Irish, French, and German settlers coming to the U.S. in the 1800’s. Cincinnati, or the “Queen of the West” as the city was nicknamed at the time, was the sixth largest city in the country, and attracted thousands of immigrants looking for industrial work. 

As Catholic immigrants arrived by boat on the banks of the Ohio, then-Bishop John Baptist Purcell directed them to Perry Township, an area forty miles away. Not only would this relieve the overcrowding in Cincinnati’s churches, but also aid in his efforts to expand the diocese, which at the time covered a lot of mostly empty territory.

Catholic immigrant families began moving there as early as 1820, many of them hoping  that Perry Township could eventually become a booming community. Anderson State Road linked the town to Chillicothe, the former state capital, and another major road under construction would link the township to Cincinnati and beyond. Yet growth was slow. In 1830, there were 1,008 residents. Ten years later, in 1840, the population had only grown by about sixty.

In the 1830s, Bishop Purcell bought an acre of land in Fayetteville for a church. For $100, he got a site in one of the best locations in town—out of the floodplain and high up on a hillside overlooking the East Fork of the Little Miami River. The cornerstone was laid in 1837. As if the church was the thing that created the community, this happened to be the same year that residents chose to name their village after General LaFayette, the Frenchman who served with George Washington in the Revolutionary War.

By 1841, the church was completed, decades before the town even got incorporated. It was called St. Patrick’s, and The Catholic Telegraph deemed it “one of the handsomest churches in the diocese, site elevated, style Gothic, stone foundations, brick superstructure, dimensions 70 by 40 feet, lofty ceiling, ornamented with a beautiful centre piece, and gallery, organ loft and sacristy.”

After it had a church, the town began to attract more residents. The Catholic Telegraph described Fayetteville around that time: 

For the information of Catholics desirous of settling in this part of the country, where, with the blessing of God, the wants of their own souls and the proper instruction of their children shall continue to be faithfully attended to, we would remark, that there are several farms for sale in the neighborhood ranging from 5 to 12 dollars per acre and the turnpike road from Chillicothe to Cincinnati will be completed with as little delay as possible. This road passes within a few rods of the church, over the East Fork of the Little Miami River, where the building of a new bridge is to be let out on Saturday next

Bishop Purcell also directed an English nun, Sister Julia Chatfield, to settle with eleven other Ursuline Sisters in Perry Township’s St. Martin, only a few miles from Fayetteville, in 1845. Another nun, Sister St. Pierre, who would travel with Chatfield, wrote that “St. Martin was the place where he believed God willed us to be. From that moment our one thought was how to get there as quickly as possible.” 

That sentiment—that it was God’s will—was shared among all the Catholic priests and  sisters who found themselves settling Perry Township. St. Martin was home to the first church in the Cincinnati outskirts. It was named after Father Martin Kundig, who settled there. He wrote of his time in Perry Township, “No sooner was I there than I heard a voice: ‘To this neighborhood you have come; stay here and lay the foundation!’”


It would not be easy. There were transportation obstacles on three sides of the community, including bridge-less rivers prone to flooding, and the land was considered swamp. In The Cross in the Wilderness, a book about the Ursuline Sisters’ history in Perry Township reported mostly from Sister Julia Chatfield’s letters, Sister Chatfield called it “the last place in creation, so remote from conveniences, from indispensable advantages.” The sisters rode for fifteen hours in a carriage with a horse that collapsed along the journey before reaching the East Fork River, a wide, deep waterway that borders the west side of Fayetteville. The river still did not have a bridge, “So we plunged into the stream,” Sister Chatfield wrote.

By 1847, the Telegraph said Fayetteville was a “large and flourishing Catholic settlement, which is daily growing” and that “no place in the West” holds out “greater inducements to emigrants wishing to purchase land” and build a community.

But at a cost. Disease and war were on the doorstep. Cholera hit Perry Township in 1851 and with it came the loss of many pioneers. Then, in 1861, many of the township’s men were drafted into the Union Army to fight in the Civil War. The rising tensions leading up to the war were prevalent even in remote places. Situated in Brown County, Perry Township is not far from the Ohio River, a boundary between the north and the south, Ohio and Kentucky. The county was considered one of the most active junctions on the Underground Railroad. 

Despite disease and war, at the direction of Archbishop Purcell—he became an archbishop in 1850—Catholics continued to try to make Fayetteville a home. By the late 1800’s, Fayetteville and the vicinity was home to three Catholic churches as well as a convent for the Ursuline Sisters and a Catholic boarding school for boys run by the Sisters of Charity. Fayetteville was the site chosen by Bishop Purcell to hold a Corpus Christi procession, the first such event held in the United States, but a Catholic tradition dating back to the Middle Ages. More than 1,500 people attended.

They flew flags from the U.S., as well as Ireland, France, and Germany. In an atlas of Brown County, Ohio, written in 1883, the writer said that the township had been “settled with a large population of foreigners…European birth or immediate descent, the Irish and French prevailing… Crime is almost unknown. Five years without a crime of any mention. A physician engaged in practice ten years can report over 200 cases of birth, without a single case illegitimate.”

“Had Bishop Purcell not built that Irish church on the hill overlooking East Fork, the story of Fayetteville and Perry Township might have been quite different,” Fayetteville historians Peggy Mezger Cooper and Harold Showalter wrote in their book, Celebrating a Community. The completion of St. Patrick Church was a turning point.”

Archbishop Purcell, the architect of Fayetteville, died in 1883 at a time when the village was still growing and had what residents thought was unlimited potential. In a testament to Purcell’s devotion to the place, he chose to be buried within the township, which he called “the gem of the archdiocese.” His grave is still there, in neighboring St. Martin, in the former wilderness that the Ursuline Sisters settled. 

Purcell, an Irish immigrant himself, believed America stood for the freedom to choose your own destiny. He helped hundreds of immigrants achieve this by directing them to build homes on swampland and transform it into a community with shared values and dreams of prosperity. Sister Chatfield, also buried in St. Martin, stayed devoted to her mission to settle Perry Township all of her life, but she had her doubts. Chatfield wrote that she was afraid of “the day when the roads will echo with the Ursulines’ departing footsteps and all the forest trees will mock the fantastic abandoned wraith of this forlorn venture.” 

I wonder what these pioneering Catholics would think if they could see Fayetteville today.


Considered an architect of Perry Township, Archbishop John Purcell died in 1883 and was laid to rest in St. Martin, on the Ursuline Sisters’ property. Photo taken in November 2023 by Kellianne Jones.

My first memory is the day that my family moved to Ohio in 1991. The moving trucks pulled into the driveway of our new home and my six-year-old brother and I, nearly three, looked on. A mover motioned for us to come closer, and we watched as he lifted my brother’s bike and my tricycle onto the pavement. My brother and I played for what felt like hours on the little piece of land my parents had bought in Fayetteville. We had lived in Jackson, New Jersey, where my dad, a machinist, had commuted to Staten Island to work at a Procter and Gamble factory. When that plant closed in 1990, my dad was chosen to transfer to another one of the company’s factories, in Cincinnati.

My father worked for Procter and Gamble for twenty-three years, and I sometimes think about how a company that manufactures toothpaste and shampoo had such an impact on my life, leaving my family uprooted, hours away from our large, tight-knit family back in New Jersey, with little choice in the matter. 

What my parents could control is where in the Cincinnati area they could live. While many of my dad’s colleagues from New York and New Jersey chose houses in the best suburban school districts they could afford as factory workers, my parents chose the country. They had both grown up just outside of New York City in working-class, industrial enclaves, and had been escaping cities for as long as they’d been together. When the realtor showed my parents the “Old Brinkman House,” as Fayetteville locals still refer to it, my parents fell in love. Situated on a hill on the outskirts of town, the two-story house was larger than anything they’d lived in before, and it had the privacy that comes with five acres. Abundant yard space was bordered by untouched forest on one side and farm fields on the other.

My parents, with their strong New Jersey accents, went on to try to build a life in a town that couldn’t be more different than the place where they grew up. By sheer luck, one thing that made assimilation easier was that we happened to be Catholic. Every other town in the surrounding area is primarily Protestant. Fayetteville is the exception, testament to the foundation that Archbishop Purcell laid. We became regulars at St. Patrick’s.


When we moved in, George Crone, a local butcher and our neighbor, told my dad about the railroad that had run across our property in the early 1900s. Even today, the slightly-elevated and rounded railbed is visible. 

“The Swing Line,” as the fifty-three-mile passenger railroad was called, was in operation from 1906 to 1919, a short-lived victory for the town after fighting for connection to other communities for decades. Fayetteville residents could hop on the Swing Line to get to factory jobs around Cincinnati, which had recently built its first skyscraper and was opening the University of Cincinnati and a ballpark for the Reds. 

There had been a promise of a train coming through Fayetteville as early as 1877. At that time, the only option for transportation was the omnibus, or horse-drawn carriage, that took more than four hours to travel twenty miles. However, train project after train project was abandoned or routed around Fayetteville. A local Cincinnati railroad expert, Jeffrey B. Jakucyk, says that some of these failures stemmed from a “lack of railroading acumen.” 

Or perhaps there is another reason. The Fayetteville historians Cooper and Showalter speculate that Fayetteville’s inability to get linked on any other major train routes at the time stemmed from prejudice by surrounding Protestant communities towards the Catholic one. Dr. Kristy Nabhan-Warren, a Catholic Studies scholar at the University of Iowa, says that it was likely that Fayetteville did experience prejudice, as did most Catholic migrants to the Midwest. “They were certainly a religious minority and there most certainly was religious discrimination,” noting that this discrimination was “very pronounced in rural areas.” In addition, she noted, the 19th century was a time when nativist and anti-immigrant trends were taking hold. “There was racism towards the Irish and Germans,” she said. “Irish Catholics in particular were considered poor and not wanted.” 

Despite the odds, Fayetteville kept fighting for a railroad. In 1880, according to the Brown County News, “The railroad fever is reaching its zenith again in Fayetteville.The officers promise them the road to be completed in ninety days. They have promised them so many times that a good many believe that promises are only made to be broken.” 

Finally, in 1906, the Swing Line opened. 

And as it happens, the railroad opening coincided with another period of promise for Fayetteville: That same year the Sisters of Charity opened the St. Aloysius Academy, an imposing four-story brick Catholic private school built on donated land. This expansion would allow the Sisters to continue teaching boarding students—with the stipulation that local children could also attend, tuition-free. I attended school in the same building a century later. 

The village was progressing, finally. St. Patrick’s was enlarged and remodeled in 1908, increasing the seating capacity by 100. That same year the Fayetteville Telephone Company was established. Electric power came to the village in 1912. 

But the Swing Line would only stay in operation for a little over a decade. The Cincinnati & Columbus Traction Company was losing money and a flood in 1913 damaged the tracks. By 1919, the train was abandoned, its demise coinciding with the beginning of Prohibition and the Great Depression.

Dr. Nabhan-Warren, who specializes in the study of rural Catholics in Iowa and the Midwest, says that train routes predetermined a community’s future.”Communities who did not have trains come through really declined and that’s replicated across the Midwest.” The Ursuline Sisters certainly lamented that Fayetteville never got the train they lobbied so hard for, Sister Monica wrote: “The district around St Martin never became the Catholic settlement upon which the Bishop had set his heart; neither did the Baltimore and Ohio railroad pass the convent. Always there were grimy roads; bad weather always made them impossible.” 

The train, its tracks, and the station were long gone by the time I came of age in Fayetteville. Its remnants were few: among them, an old, haunted, farmhouse that served as a train station at one time, and an abutment over the river that brave people used to jump off of into the deep East Fork below. 

In many towns, I think, a train that briefly existed over a hundred years earlier might have been forgotten, but in ours, it still felt alive. Most kids growing up in Fayetteville knew it had once been a connection to places that felt distant. It certainly felt that way  to me, who lived on the old train’s route and dreamt of what life would be like elsewhere.


We heard the keys jiggle as we waited in the dark for the door to open. A friend worked part-time at our high school, and was willing to use her job privileges on behalf of our questionable judgment. We had decided to break in, not to steal or disturb, but to see if the ghost we always suspected was there came out at night. It was the fall of my junior year in 2005. 

We looked around to see if anyone was watching, but it was late and we were good kids that everyone knew and we didn’t really have any fear of getting in trouble. The nuns who once ruled the maze-like halls were long gone. But local legend said there was still one resident—the ghost of a nun who had hung herself. We headed up a winding staircase to the fourth floor where she supposedly roamed. Then, of course, someone said they heard a noise, and we ran. 

The buildings that once housed St. Aloysius Academy had become Fayetteville-Perry High School in 1983, after decades as a Catholic boarding school and brief periods as a military academy, a Glenmary Sisters convent, and a Brothers of the Poor of St. Francis novitiate. I was in the very last graduating class to spend my entire high school career in the old building before it was torn down, in 2009. 

What I didn’t know as a student in Fayetteville was that we were lucky to have a school in our town at all. In the decades following the Great Depression, the village came close to losing the school, repeatedly. Several forces were at work.


In June 1935, the Cincinnati Enquirer published a column by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Deep on the eighth page—in a section called “Articles of interest to women”— her column was wedged in between an advice column and beauty recommendations. Donnelly’s Beauty Salon said they could give women “curls that will stay put.” A perfume was advertised as a thing that could “make women more beautiful.” One nineteen -year-old called “Hopeless” wrote in to get counsel on dealing with parents who don’t approve of her boyfriend. 

Roosevelt, too, had some advice; hers was directed at rural mothers: 

I am frequently told that mothers are the ones who oppose doing away with the small one or two room schools, first, because they do not like to send their children far away from home; secondly, because a few are nervous about letting them go in a school bus; and thirdly, because both the mother and father frequently feel that, since they obtained

their education in a school nearby, that school is good enough for their children. I do not believe, however, that the fathers and mothers of rural America, if they thought this problem through, would let those reasons outweigh certain changes which are obviously to the advantage of children.

Her column came as a movement was building to put education in the hands of the government. Prior to the 1930’s, education was controlled by individual communities, with students taught in one-room schoolhouses that numbered in the hundreds of thousands at the time. These small, predominantly rural schools became the target of Roosevelt-style reform during the Great Depression. 

The reformers argued that these small schools were difficult to manage and were a setback to standardization. Others, in the same newspaper, contended that “to turn our free system of education over to a central power would be to turn our backs on basic democratic principles.” But the reform movement was already underway.

By 1936, the Ohio State Director of Education said that rural schools are among “the biggest handicaps we have in the state.” He called rural schools “inefficient and expensive” but noted that locals “insist they be kept up.”

The rise of this sentiment marked the beginning of what would become a decades-long battle for Fayetteville to keep its own school—either public or parochial. 

Even though the village was small, and without resources, it had one advantage that dated back to Archbishop Purcell: Catholic Sisters. The Sisters of Charity had been teaching many Fayetteville children since the 1860s in old houses-turned-schools. When the Sisters of Charity began plans to start a new Catholic boarding school in the village, around the same time of the false promise of a railroad coming through, the local people gifted the Sisters land—with the stipulation that the nuns allow their children to attend the school tuition-free, learning alongside students from Cincinnati with the means to attend a private boarding school.  

It was deemed difficult, it turns out, to teach wealthy students from Cincinnati alongside poor farming children. This was a source of tension that led to the Sisters’ keeping these sets of children separate, with different teachers and classes in the overcrowded school. In 1914, the Sisters’ asked St. Patrick’s Parish to open its own school to alleviate some of these issues; the church bought a former tavern and turned it into a parochial school. That only lasted sixteen years, until the Great Depression, when financial problems forced its closure. 

After that, students were taught in various makeshift buildings anywhere they could fit; there were at least five different schools in the township, including a three-room elementary school and a high school building that was called the most “obsolete” and “inadequate” structure in the vicinity by a local newspaper, The Ripley Bee, in 1933. Four years later, in 1937, the village was finally able to fund a new public school building for seventh grade through high school with help from the federal government. Sisters of Charity continued to teach these students, even in this publicly-funded school system. Meanwhile, younger students attended a parochial school in St. Martin, run by the Ursuline Sisters. 

At the turn of the century, Fayetteville had seemed like it was growing. In Celebrating a Community, local historians Mezger Cooper and Showalter wrote that after the Great Depression, Fayetteville’s total school enrollment from grades 1 through 12 was 403, less than half what it had been in 1881. This made it a prime target for consolidation in the state’s eyes. 

But Mezger Cooper says that the important thing to town residents at the time was a local school, one that was as Catholic as possible. At risk of being lost was not only a school of their own, the people felt, but their heritage as a religious settlement. Fayetteville was concerned in part about discrimination against Catholics in the neighboring Protestant communities. Anti-Catholicism was prevalent at the time nationwide, and was even an obstacle for President John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign. Kennedy won the presidency in one of the closest elections in American history, but there is evidence that his Catholic faith cost him several key states, including Ohio.

The Sisters of Charity, still obligated by the agreement they had made several decades before, continued teaching the local students in the public high school—until 1949. It was extremely rare for Sisters to teach in public schools at this time, and that year, the Sisters were finally recalled to Cincinnati, despite pleas from the locals. When they left, St. Patrick’s priest, its lay people, and the other Catholic order of nuns in the area, the Ursuline Sisters, who had only been teaching the younger students, took over teaching the total public school system in Fayetteville. 

By the 1950’s, the pressure to consolidate schools became much more intense. Bigger schools received funding, while smaller schools, like those in Brown County, received little or no funds. A 1953 article in the Ripley Bee described the state’s plan to have Perry Township students bussed to a school “somewhere near Mount Orab,” twelve miles away. The article described Fayetteville’s “smoldering resentment” towards the plan. The local Brown County representative, George Hook Jr., and Perry Township’s school board president, Joe Holden, led a group of township protestors to Columbus, the capital, to meet with Ohio Governor Frank Lausche and the head of the Department of Education on the issue. Hook told them that the school consolidation issue “is being crammed down the throats of county residents.” State officials retorted that they were only suggesting consolidation– but did concede that Brown County was among the lowest priority counties on the list to receive any funding. 

In the winter of 1956, Father Koening of St. Patrick’s Church wrote a desperate letter to a bishop in Toledo over the issue: 

I have been pastor here for about a year and a half and now I have been asked to write to you in the hope you might be in the position to do a good turn for our Catholic children. During the depression, I think, the parochial school here was abandoned and many of the Sister teachers shifted to the public school system. That was bad enough, but now under the pressure for consolidation, strong efforts are being made to force our schools to consolidate with the surrounding communities which are almost solidly protestant.

The letter asked the Bishop for help convincing the archdiocese to support a Catholic school in Fayetteville, but it did not make a difference. The state continued its campaign to reform rural schools, and there is no record of the archdiocese stepping in.

Meanwhile in 1957, the state would not recognize Fayetteville as a permanent school, a move intended to pressure the school to consolidate, and it was not able to obtain full state funding. A 1957 flier—encouraging residents to vote to pass a $185,000 bond that would give the town funds necessary to save their school—read, “We, the board of education, think this is the most important election ever held in Perry Township.” 

The town of poor farmers passed the public school bond, vowing to raise the funds out of  their own paychecks, effectively ending the years-long battle over consolidation, at least until the state would try again in the 1960’s. They were able to save the town’s school, and every kid who has worn a Fayetteville sports jersey or t-shirt in the 67 years since has those voters who passed the levy to thank. 

The residents thought their school—and thus their heritage—was safe. 


It was an unusually warm winter day in January 1960. Father Koening opened the meeting with a prayer. “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” the priest began. 

A worried St. Patrick’s congregation was joined by two Ursuline Sisters, Mother Gabriel and Sister Xavier, in the meeting. This was just a few weeks after the Ursuline Sisters had delivered a major blow to Fayetteville—with the news that they could no longer teach the town’s children in its public school, as they had been doing since the days of Sister Julia Chatfield’s mission to Perry Township in 1845. Now they were explaining the reasons. 

“We are sorry things have happened as they have,” Mother Gabriel said. “The reason we became sisters was to try to spread the Catholic faith. As that is no longer the case, with the laws being as they are, we will simply have to resign.”

About 500 miles away, in Washington, the U.S. Supreme Court was on the verge of hearing two landmark cases on the place of religion in public schools. The issue had been at the forefront of national conversation in the wake of the McCollum v Board of Education, in 1948.

“It was the case of Mrs. McCollum refusing to have her son left in the room,” Mother Gabriel explained. A fifth grader, the son of an atheist mother, had been  bullied for not taking part in Protestant prayer in his Champaign, Illinois classroom. “It finally came to the Supreme Court,” she said. “They took religion out of the schools and said there should be no mention of God’s name in these schools.” 

She added, “The Archbishop told us to stop teaching immediately.” 

The Ursuline Sisters—and the archdiocese—knew more was coming. Within two years of this meeting in Fayetteville, the Supreme Court would rule in Engel v Vitale that school-sponsored prayer violated the constitution. A year after that, in 1963, the court would ban organized Bible reading for religious and moral instruction. 

The option for Fayetteville, Father Koening explained, was to raise funds for its own Catholic school. He unveiled a plan to ask all parishioners to donate ten percent of their salaries to the church. “You are at a crossroads right now,” the priest said. 

“Did the Archbishop say go ahead with the building?” one resident, Walter Metzger, asked. 

“He said to go ahead if we get the money,” the priest explained. 

St. Patrick’s Church, like all Catholic churches, collected money from parishioners at every mass. In 1960, collections averaged about $400 a week. Father Koening was  asking the congregation—mostly poor farmers—to double their contributions. The national average salary of a farmer at the time was around $3,000 a year (a bit more than $31,000 in 2024 dollars), while the average urban or suburban worker made significantly more, ranging from $6,000 to $8,000 dollars a year.

In a letter distributed at mass in March 1960, a group of Fayetteville residents who supported the priest’s proposal urged their community to donate not just for the sake of the school but for the sake of the parish that defined Fayetteville: “Without the sisters in our public schools and with no promise of a parochial school in the near future, will St. Patrick’s thrive and prosper,” they asked, “or will it slowly disintegrate?” 

But the funds were never raised, and the town was left with a public school where no sister would ever teach again. More than sixty years later, the public school is still standing, and the question of whether Fayetteville, so intertwined with St. Patrick’s, would “thrive and prosper” or “slowly disintegrate” is still on the table.


In 1962, at the opening of the Vatican II Council, Pope John XXIII had a message for all bishops, priests, and nuns: “Look for the signs of the times.” The council convened at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City; bishops, observers, auditors, sisters, laymen, and laywomen attended four separate sessions of the council between 1962 and 1965. More than 2,000 bishops came from 116 countries. Vatican II was the first global meeting of the Church; the previous council had taken place nearly 100 years earlier.

The purpose was to bring the church into the modern world. An American had recently orbited the earth six times, the governor of Mississippi had just tried to block the admission of a Black student to a state university, and the United States and the Soviet Union were grinding toward the Cuban missile crisis. The winds of upheaval were blowing and the Catholic community felt them in the 1960s. 

The Church made a wide variety of reforms—well over 1,000 pages in English translation—that reverberated throughout the 1960’s and eventually created a lasting, historical divide among church leaders that is still smoldering today. Some Catholics yearn for the traditional conservatism that defined the Church before the 1960s, while others embrace the Vatican II reforms that made Catholicism more accessible, such as no longer saying Mass in Latin. 

While the Catholic Church was going through its identity crisis, so was Fayetteville, 100 years after the town had been incorporated. 

Decades of cultivation had turned the area’s once-undesirable swamp-like wilderness into productive farmland that supported most of the area’s families. The town finally had a public water system, a sign of progress that only came after a Hepatitis A outbreak made it imperative. An out-of-state development company was just completing construction of Lake Lorelei on the outskirts of town, a “private resort” on a man-made lake that would bring outsiders to Perry Township for the first time. 

And just as the citizens were planning the 1968 centennial celebration, they were able to stave off another state effort to consolidate their school with neighboring public schools. 

They had much to celebrate—and much to consider. 

At the 1968 Centennial celebration, the Ohio governor at the time, Republican James Rhodes, made the festival’s opening speech. A farmer’s daughter from a family with a long lineage in the town won the Miss Fayetteville pageant. Bygone farm equipment and modern tractors alike made their way through the streets for the annual parade. 

It was like any other festival in small-town America, aside from one thing—a play entitled “Honor, Integrity, and Liberty” that was reenacted each day, and that asked residents to consider their future.

According to a script, the play started with a “HEAR! HEAR!” followed by country music. 


“The town is still a good place to live in,” the narrator declared. “Its roots extend generations back to the longing in the hearts of men and women to have for themselves, for their children, a better, richer, and a fuller life. While their lives have been bound by oppression and their possessions few, tonight, nevertheless, let us remember the hardships and perils that were the coin with which they had to buy this better life.” 

“Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, we the people, with all our combined strengths and weaknesses, write the history of our community,” the play continued. “Whatever effort and enthusiasm we exert in hard labor changes the course of history in our community.” 

Then the narrator asked a series of big questions: 

“How can we best direct our steps and those of our youth to shape our own existence? How can we so control our escalated world as to stem these current crises and implement the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams—and yes, General LaFayette—into a happy, peaceable community that will contribute its fair share to the progress of this Republic of the United States?” 


The questions were pertinent. By the time of this celebration, Fayetteville had already missed its opportunity to develop, despite its best efforts. Even though the town hadn’t changed much, the world was changing around it, and its people were looking for a way to “control our escalated world” and “shape our own existence.” They knew they’d have to hold on tight to their roots. 


A little more than two decades after the 1968 centennial, in 1991, my family moved to town. While new faces like ours were becoming more common in Fayetteville, the town hadn’t grown. In fact, businesses that once graced the lively streets of the small downtown area were mostly gone. The loss was gradual. But if you look at pictures of Fayetteville during the town’s first century, it looked healthier then. Furniture stores, beauty shops, grocery and candy stores lined the streets. By the time my family moved there, such places were mostly gone. Fayetteville’s residents could travel to the suburbs of Cincinnati to buy goods at cheaper stores with more options. 

By the time the last businesses left, the town decided to raze the old historic buildings that once held them. It’s one of my earliest memories—the old brick buildings lining the street were there one day, and the next, they were a pile of rubble. It felt like they were making room for something. And they were: Gas stations. Gas—so people could travel somewhere else. 

But one place within Fayetteville was still thriving, and that was St. Patrick’s Church. The Catholic community was still strong and the church parking lots were still packed every Sunday morning. In a way, the churchgoers were heeding  the plea at the 1968 centennial to hold onto their heritage, and perhaps they sensed that this would not be easy.

“Times have changed,” The New York Times declared in the year 2000. “Families, including Catholic families, are smaller. Career choices are more plentiful. The priesthood has been demoralized by pedophilia scandals. The work of a priest has become more demanding and stressful.” 

The Times was reporting on a priest shortage crisis in Queens and Brooklyn but nationwide, more priests were dying than were ordained each year. The repercussions of a changing nation and a changing Catholic Church were reverberating across the county. Churches were closing and merging, and nowhere was too small to outrun those repercussions. Not even Fayetteville. 


Fayetteville’s St. Patrick’s Chapel of St. Angela Merici Church was called “one of the handsomest churches” in the diocese by The Catholic Telegraph in 1841. Photo taken in November 2023 by Kellianne Jones.

“We realize that this is difficult for people,” Dan Andiracco, the communications director for the Cincinnati archdiocese, said to the Brown County Press in 2003. “It is something we do rather reluctantly but necessarily.” He was talking about the announcement of a merger of Fayetteville’s St. Patricks, St. Martin’s, and a third church in a neighboring community, Blanchester, called the Church of the Holy Name.

There were not enough priests to serve all of the individual churches, especially in the more rural areas of the diocese, so the Archbishop at the time, Daniel Pilarczyk, made decisions as to which churches would share a single priest. The archdiocese was also requiring the three “churches” to downgrade to “chapels” and to drop their names in favor of a new, different and shared name.

There were practical reasons, such as conflicting school schedules, that the Perry Township churches—St. Patrick’s and St. Martin’s—did not want to merge with Blanchester’s Holy Name. Another reason: Perry Township was an insular place. Dating back to the earliest settlers, the town had felt looked down upon for its immigrant  Catholic roots. Its people  had spent generations fighting for a train, then a school, and now to keep their church. 

This plan was painful for both of Perry Township’s Catholic churches—St. Patrick’s and St. Martin’s, also a tight-knit congregation with a deep history. Both churches had ties to the founding of the community by Archbishop Purcell and the Ursuline Sisters. But most upsetting for the people of both churches was the proposed name change. Fayetteville in particular begged the archdiocese to allow them to retain the St. Patrick’s name, citing all it stood for and how the town’s ancestors had built it from scratch. St. Patrick’s was also overwhelmingly the largest church out of the three and the most financially sound. They thought that would count for something. 

But it didn’t. Despite protests, the Archbishop pressed forward. St. Patrick’s became officially known as St. Angela Merici’s in July 2003. 

In a testament to the tensions surrounding the merger, the archdiocese planned to hold the first mass as the newly-unified St. Angela Merici on neutral ground. Church officials chose the Ursuline Sisters’ convent, by then called Chatfield College, in St. Martin’s, rather than showing favoritism to any of the three ”chapels.”

The Cincinnati Archdiocese’s house organ publication, the Catholic Telegraph, praised the merger, calling it the “new rural model” for Catholic churches. An independent pastoral consultant who was quoted in the magazine said he found the parishioners to be “very in love with their history and tradition but also excited about the opportunities that lie ahead.” What the article didn’t capture was the deep sentiment, still prevalent today, that the archdiocese didn’t listen to the community.

“My ancestors came and settled this church. I was angry,” said Judy Iles, a descendant of one of Fayetteville’s earliest families, the Gauche’s, and one of the town’s most involved church members. “I didn’t go to the opening mass because I didn’t approve of it. That’d be like going to a political rally where you don’t support the candidate.” When Iles told the priest at the time that she wanted to keep the church’s original name because she was “proud of being from here,” he told her that being prideful was a sin.

At that opening mass in 2003, Archbishop Pilarczyk said he was looking forward to twenty-five years from now, when the archdiocese would be back to celebrate the church’s anniversary. “It is quite possible that some of you will be part of that celebration,” the Catholic Telegraph reported. 

It was a shortsighted comment. The St. Angela Merici envisioned by the archdiocese has already fallen apart. The Blanchester church left to join another church in its own county. St. Martin’s closed its doors due to a mold problem that was deemed too expensive to fix. Meanwhile, in Fayetteville, many parishioners continued to call their church St. Patricks, not by its new name. Some make their weekly offering check out to St. Patrick’s instead of St. Angela Merici, in a form of silent protest. 

And while St. Patrick’s-turned-Angela Merici is still standing, it is not likely to make it to its twenty-fifth anniversary, either. 


The stars were plentiful that evening in 2006. Friends I’d known since I was a toddler laid next to me on the warm pavement, looking up at the sky over the corn stalks that lined Savage Road. 

It was our final year in our hometown, and we dreamed together about what our futures would be like outside a place that felt like a fortress of farm fields. The asphalt road beneath our seventeen-year-old bodies would soon carry us to these new lives. But in the meantime we laid there, not worried about oncoming cars, since they rarely passed, and naively unaware that we were dreaming of moving to places where the stars don’t shine.

A year after that night, I left my Ohio hometown for the first time. I had no fear. I chose a college a day’s drive away, where no one else from Fayetteville had ever gone. I wasn’t fueled by resentment towards the place I grew up, but by big ambition that felt impossible from the confines of a rural environment. 

Over my high school years, I had seen glimpses of what I had been missing. The few times that I had come into contact with peers from suburban schools are etched in my memory: attending Buckeye girls’ state, the government camp; a Model U.N. conference; a state science fair competition; playing soccer against a Cincinnati private school. In each of these experiences we lost or came in nearly last; I felt inferior and, sometimes, humiliated. My school didn’t have the resources those schools did, I didn’t have the skills or preparation those students did, and these things were  painfully obvious. Part of my drive to leave was proving to myself that I could.

So I left. I didn’t miss Fayetteville at first. I wanted to be a journalist and that goal was all-consuming. In college, instead of going back to my hometown during summer break, I spent my time in New York interning, living off a grant that I won, or in London, studying Islam, desperate for a worldliness that felt so distant from everything I had ever known. I bought my flight with a savings bond that my parents had stashed away since their wedding. 

But over the years, even after becoming a journalist, I kept getting drawn back into Fayetteville. It was a dot on the map, but a lot was going on.

The opioid crisis hit my hometown hard. Just a county away, in Portsmouth, pill mills gave birth to a heroin epidemic, and my brother, an emergency medical technician at the time, used Naloxone on almost a daily basis, occasionally on former classmates that we both knew. Later, my brother told me about how some local volunteer fire departments were struggling to respond to 911 calls due to a shortage of volunteers. 

So, trying to understand, I’d find myself contacting those communities after work to hear more about what was happening, and to try to figure out why. 

Then Trump won the 2016 election, and rural America was on the forefront of the political divide. I’d try to explain what rural places were like to anyone who would listen. During coronavirus, solar energy companies began quietly leasing thousands of acres of farmland in the Fayetteville area so I convinced my employer, Fox News, to report on how this kind of development impacts farming communities. While I had worked hard to leave my hometown, the only thing I could think about was how to get back. 


Kellianne reporting at a Trump rally in 2020. Photo by Kristin Fisher.

On a morning in October, just before the 2020 Presidential Election, I stood outside my Navy Yard apartment building in Washington, just a short walk away from the Capitol. I was waiting for an Uber to take me to work. I wore a face mask, still required at that time, but constantly pulled it down to activate the facial recognition on my phone. My family’s text thread was more active than ever, with my brother, sister-in-law, and parents sharing pictures of my newly-born niece, who I hadn’t yet gotten to meet. While I was in the busiest time of my career, all I could think about was home.

The drive to work includes a trip down Ohio Drive, a main thoroughfare that traverses the Tidal Basin, home to the city’s famous cherry blossoms, before taking a right onto 17th Street, a road that runs between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. A few blocks up, it intersects with Pennsylvania Avenue, my destination, and the northwest entry to the White House.

The stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House is normally open to pedestrians, but in late 2020, following the tense Black Lives Matter protests that summer, it closed, with no announced plan for reopening. Tall black fences now lined the streets, forming a perimeter, closing off Pennsylvania Avenue and neighboring LaFayette Park from the public. Access points to get inside the perimeter changed often, and my colleagues and I, who worked inside the White House, had an ongoing email chain to advise each other where to go on a particular day. 

Inside the grounds, journalists work in office space located between the residence, the iconic presidential home, and the West Wing, the legendary working office of the president and his advisors. Behind the White House Briefing Room, news outlets share close-quartered office space with few windows. Fox News’s basement office is ten feet long by ten feet wide. Pre-coronavirus, five of us were crammed into it.

This was my first day back at the White House after traveling to Carson City, Nevada and Tucson, Arizona for then-President Trump’s campaign stretch before the 2020 election. Despite coronavirus, I had been traveling regularly by plane since July, mostly to Trump rallies. The more I saw, the more hopeless I began to feel about the prospects of the country coming together.

That day, I found out about my next assignment, which was a final campaign swing I’d make in the coming days to Lumberton, North Carolina, then to West Salem, Wisconsin. After that, I’d fly to Miami to board Air Force One to work as a member of the traveling press for the president’s five-stop final campaign trip. In a single day, we’d travel from Miami to five rallies, in Fayetteville, North Carolina; Scranton, Pennsylvania; Traverse City, Michigan; Kenosha, Wisconsin; and Grand Rapids, Michigan. Then we’d fly back to Washington, D.C.

I’d begun covering the White House in 2018, in anticipation of the 2020 election. It was the reason I took the job. The White House was a notoriously brutal beat with relatively high turnover for television producers across all networks. Travel was assigned last-minute, the hours were long and unpredictable, the demands were fast and stressful, the personalities were strong, and there were dozens of factors to navigate daily that are outside the realm of your control. Additionally, the Trump White House, I have been told by many senior colleagues in the White House press corps, operated differently than any other administration. The only way to describe it is chaos. 

I acclimated to the stress and urgency of the job, but it wasn’t something that came naturally. As a rural Midwesterner, my good manners and consideration for others was a detriment, something I had to unlearn. I became more assertive. Indecision would sink you, and I started making decisions within seconds. Over time, I’ve gotten compliments from my colleagues on how well I handled stress and manage to stay calm in chaotic situations. But like many people in fields like this, I could only be successful by pushing myself to overcome what came naturally. 

And that was something that eventually exhausted me. While I learned to enjoy the job, I also learned that breaks were necessary. Withdrawing from the world of Washington, D.C. and politics is something that I needed regularly to keep my sanity—and, more importantly, to stay true to who I am. And I learned that the one place on earth that can center me in an instant is Fayetteville. 


During my first few years of college, I tried to hide where I was from. During orientation at Syracuse, an admissions officer embarrassed me when he made a point to say— in front of a group of my peers—that I was the only one who went to a high school he had never heard of. If I met other students on campus from the Cincinnati area, they’d usually comment on how where I’m from is the “middle of nowhere” and question “how I ended up here” at the same university as them. I let them embarrass me because I was desperate to belong. I stopped mentioning my hometown to people who wouldn’t understand, which was almost everyone I met those first few years. I felt lost.

But when I came back to Fayetteville, I felt like myself again. I was reminded of who I was. 

During one Christmas break, I was getting a haircut from my former Catechism teacher in a salon. She asked me how college was going. I didn’t respond enthusiastically. I never forgot what she said after that: “You’re different from all those kids up there because you’ve got roots. They don’t.” 

The comment surprised me. My ancestral roots weren’t technically from Fayetteville; my ancestors only went as far west as New Jersey. I had spent years in Fayetteville, in fact, being highly aware that I was a city-born “Jersey girl” transplant. But here was this woman, a Fayetteville native, sharing her deep roots with me at a time I really needed an anchor. It wasn’t the last time the people of Fayetteville would accept me as one of their own. In fact, when I started asking them to, they always did. 

As I got into my career covering the White House, my hometown became something like medicine, a soothing, rejuvenating place where I could recover from the toxic nature of politics in Washington. And it worked. 

Meanwhile, on the job, the ordinary Americans who deserve an amplified voice in our nation’s capital are always on my mind. I’ve never once forgotten who I am. 

Fayetteville was my anchor. Yet Fayetteville  was changing. Something was simmering there that no one in Washington would ever care about. 

In Cincinnati, it became public that the archdiocese was undertaking what church officials vaguely defined as a pastoral planning initiative, a fancy phrase for consolidating churches—again—that sounded like it was created by spin experts straight out of the place I lived, Washington. Word had reached some of Fayetteville’s most devout members. Once again they were losing a part of their identity. 


It was a Tuesday night in October 2021, just a few minutes after dusk, when around fifty members of St. Angela Merici, formerly St. Patrick’s, gathered in Daly Hall, the red brick building that always seemed to be the meeting place whenever the people of Fayetteville had to reckon with major change.

The first official word of what was coming appeared in a blurb in a church bulletin in May: “211 parishes will merge into 75,” it read. By June, the Archbishop, Dennis Schnurr, announced that the church  would reduce the number of parishes to 60, instead. 

The archdiocese was undertaking a dramatic consolidation effort, oddly called “Beacons of Light”—effectively shrinking its size by 70 percent. This was emblematic of a nationwide trend, especially in the East Coast and Rust Belt. Between 2010 and 2020, total registered Catholic households in Cincinnati declined six percent, with the number of available priests expected to decrease by 20 percent by 2026. 

In July, a folded letter was tucked in with the weekly bulletin. It was from the archdiocese, addressed to the people of St. Angela Merici: 

“Unfortunately, not all change over the past two centuries has been for the better. American assimilation has brought with it a certain diminishment of distinctive Catholic culture. Religious practice among Catholics, following the overall U.S. trend, is in serious decline. One need only look at the empty pews of an average Sunday Mass to know this. Catholic families are generally not as large as they used to be and fewer parents encourage their children to consider a religious vocation.

As a church, together we always have the responsibility to look ahead and make the best use of all the Lord has provided us.

The letter continued:

Is each of our parishes a strong, vital community… or is it just struggling to survive?

To address such questions the Archdiocese of Cincinnati had launched ‘Beacons of Light,’ a process of “comprehensive pastoral planning,”  and hired a consultant to study each parish’s demographics and culture. The findings would be used to determine which churches to close and which to merge. 

Most people in Fayetteville were skeptical of this process. “We weren’t really surprised when it came down saying we’re consolidating,” said Kim Weiderhold, a St. Angela Merici parish council member who formerly attended St. Martin’s Church. “Those of us out here in the country always kind of felt we got the short end.” 

Fayetteville’s stats were a reason to worry, too. Average mass attendance dropped from 422 in 2011 to 317 in 2021. The median age of the parish was forty two, a number that was trending upward with many younger generation members choosing to move away, as has been a trend in most of America’s rural communities. The consultant predicted that by 2026 the town would have a 20 percent loss of the young adults considered ‘Generation Z.’

By September, the analysis had concluded and the archdiocese announced a preliminary plan. Another letter was tucked in the bulletins at Mass: 

“After months of study and analysis, we cannot escape the conclusion that in many cases our church buildings are grossly underutilized, our priests and parish staff members are stretched to the limit, and our parishes are simply not the vibrant, evangelizing communities Catholics want and need them to be.

To help remedy this situation and be better stewards of the resources God has made available to us, parishes in the archdiocese will be grouped into “Families of Parishes” under the leadership of one pastor. After that, each Family will collaborate internally to determine the best and highest use of their shared resources…”

On the first day of October 2021, The Cincinnati Enquirer called Beacons of Light “the most ambitious reorganization” in the archdiocese’s 200-year history, “changing when and where almost a half-million Catholics attend Mass.” Parishes could submit feedback to a draft plan before the final version would be released in December. Just about a week later, St. Angela Merici’s parishioners met again in Daly Hall to see how they planned to respond.

Father Tom Bolte got the meeting underway on a dark note. “For the most part, statistically, the number of people attending church has decreased dramatically over the last ten, twenty, thirty years,” he said. “Okay, so that’s just a fact.” 

Father Bolte explained that the archdiocese had indeed decided to consolidate the area’s 212 churches into 60 church “families,” or groups of churches that would share priests, masses, financial resources, and eventually merge under a new name. For Fayetteville, the archdiocese’s draft plan, released in October, grouped St. Angela Merici with five other churches spread out over  seventy-five miles, all to be served by two priests. After that, these new priests will make decisions on whether it is sustainable to keep all the churches open. The complete unification of the churches into one parish is to be completed by 2027.

The archdiocese’s goal is that 1,500-2,500 families will attend each of these new parishes, but on Cincinnati’s rural eastern outskirts, there simply are not enough Catholics to meet that goal. There are about 900 families across all six parishes around Fayetteville, including St. Angela Merici, and none of the existing church buildings in this group are big enough to hold many more parishioners than they currently do. Father Bolte said the ideal solution would be to build one large new church in a more central location, a proposal that many in Fayetteville consider to be one of the worst possible outcomes. It would mean losing the church that their ancestors sacrificed so much to build, they said, and likely losing the town’s Catholic identity. 

The six parishes that comprised the initial proposed “family” were based on proximity but also a cultural assessment by the archdiocese’s consultants. They labeled most of Fayetteville and the neighboring parish communities, mostly in Brown County, in a category they labeled as “Salt of the Earth.” Such arbitrary labels aimed to help the archdiocese determine which parishes shared values and priorities, in the hopes that a merger might be successful. The assessment for the Fayetteville group in part reads, “Residents are entrenched in their traditional, rural lifestyles. Citizens here are older, and many have grown children that moved away… Spending time with family is their top priority. Cost-conscious consumers, loyal to brands they like, with a focus on buying American… Truck ownership is high; many also own an ATV.” 

The parishioners were told that the most likely outcome, at least at first, would be fewer masses at St. Angela Merici. Eventually, within that five year window ahead of unification in 2027, there could be a decision to keep St. Angela Merici’s doors open for just special events, or, if it is too expensive to maintain, it could close. 

“I can’t guarantee anything,” Father Bolte said. 


By December 2021, change was underway. Fayetteville’s official parish family had been chosen—five total churches, all located in Brown County, up to an hour’s drive away. The new priests, Father Frank Amberger and Father Andrew Cordonnier, were leaving assignments at other churches in the archdiocese, and would soon be making their way to Brown County. 

Since then, the slow five-year process of Beacons of Light has made it easy to pretend as though change isn’t happening. Since the process won’t be final until 2027, things seem normal for now. The new priests are keeping the mass schedule mostly the same, despite Father Bolte’s warning that such a schedule was not sustainable. The archdiocese’s website still says there are “no parish closings at this time” in Brown County. But behind the scenes, a small group of leaders from each of the five churches have formed a parish council, and they will have to make the tough decisions as mandated by the archdiocese. The eventual goal—by 2027—is for the five parishes to become one. 

For now, the only certainty is that St. Patrick’s-turned-St. Angela Merici will transform again in the next several years. Whether that transformation includes a name change or, more likely, closing doors, is unknown. Maybe things could be different for Fayetteville if the town’s heritage wasn’t tied so tightly to a powerful global entity outside its control. It might hurt less if they could fight. But since a small village can’t save the Catholic Church, Fayetteville is starting down a painful road. 

Just a few miles away from St. Angela Merici, in the little village of St. Martin, Jeff and Kim Weiderhold raised four children in a house across the street from the Ursuline Sisters’ grounds that date back to 1845. On Sunday mornings, for years, the family would walk the country road, all four kids in tow, to attend mass at St. Martin’s, the oldest church in the area. 

What they didn’t know at the time is that their grandchildren wouldn’t get the chance to make the same Sunday morning walk. St. Martin’s stopped holding mass in 2012 and was subsequently shuttered due to mold. Now, the Weiderholds go by car to Fayetteville, to the church people still call St. Patrick’s. 

But St. Patrick’s-turned-St. Angela Merici is of course in danger of the same fate, Today’s generation could be one of the last to call Fayetteville’s landmark church their spiritual home. 

The church will almost certainly change its name again, too, when it merges with four other churches by the end of Beacons of Light in 2027.  “Heaven knows what they’ll call it,” Judy Iles, the parish bookkeeper, says. “You can take away our name but as you see, everyone calls it St. Patrick’s anyway.” 

Fayetteville’s people have fought for their way of life for over a century, from the beginning when the poor Catholic settlers plowed swampland and fought to make it a home. The town tried to grow, putting faith in a train route that didn’t last. They fought for  decades to fully secure their own school, facing down multiple threats of closure. And now, the people of Fayetteville hope to keep some fragment of the church their ancestors built. 

“I don’t think we’ll fight because it got us nowhere,” Iles said. “My hope is that our church stays. It won’t be the same. But that’s really all I have.” 


Somewhere between Archbishop Purcell’s tenure in the 1800s and today, the archdiocese lost sight of its rural communities. So did America. As the U.S. became more urbanized, there’s been less understanding of what places like Fayetteville contribute to the tapestry of the nation and what they need, which, at least in part, is a semblance of control over their own destiny. 

Perry Township’s settlers, in particular, were a poor and an oppressed religious minority, but they seized the opportunity to build a community. They built a thriving downtown, a community centered around a Catholic church, and toiled the difficult soil until it became productive farmland for future generations. They fought for every little advancement, from telephone lines to a library, always the last place around to get them. What they controlled, thrived. What they didn’t control—development, the rise of urbanism, the changing economy—could have wiped Fayetteville off the map if the town didn’t fight. One of the most significant examples is the village’s battle against the Ohio Department of Education’s rural consolidation efforts in the 1950s and 1960s; without a school of its own, the town likely wouldn’t have survived. 

After that, at some point, Perry Township’s citizens went from questioning how they can define their own destiny—the point raised so clearly during their 100-year celebration in 1968—to the mentality I later grew up with in the early 2000’s: a kind of passivity, a sense that Fayetteville is what it is. Some of the fight seems drained out of it. Maybe people are tired. Fayetteville’s original storefronts emptied long ago, houses are more rundown than many remember. There is addiction, too. Many people, especially young adults across our county, became hooked on opioids, for a time at a level worse than almost anywhere else in Ohio. While some towns elsewhere have been able to keep their historic buildings intact, renovating and repurposing the old into new, Fayetteville has lost and demolished much of what once stood. 

Today, many rural places, including my own hometown, are dealing with things like unprecedented hospital closures; a shortage of volunteer firefighters and emergency medical staff; solar and wind companies’ rapid development in farming communities, pitting neighbors who support that type of development and those who don’t against each other; and an urban migration to parts of rural America post-coronavirus that prices locals out of their own communities and strains limited resources. 

For example, one of Fayetteville’s enclaves, Lake Lorelei, a private gated lake community of more than 600 homes, has had an influx of urban residents since 2020. “The Lake,” as locals call it, averages about fifty new residents a year. Kathyrn Greene, a member of Lake Lorelei’s Board of Trustees and a retired local accountant, estimates these urban “migrants” are now about half of the overall Lake population. For decades, Lake Lorelei’s residents, a mix of people from every socioeconomic class, had healthy roots in Perry Township, with Lake families involved in the local schools and community. But Greene, who’s called the Lake home for 45 years, says the culture there is shifting to more of a “resort” fostered by the new urban population. Big, new houses are replacing older ones. Prices are going up and traffic is increasing. “They want Lake Lorelei to be upscale,” Greene says. “Our country people out here are just happy to have a lake to play in. Those upscale accouterments, we don’t need that stuff.” 

Still, the shift has benefits for Perry Township. The new residents support local economic needs, and the Lake’s residents are on average the wealthiest in the township and pay higher property taxes. Many are good neighbors, and some new members’ expertise is helping the Lake improve things, like water quality. Others are good at fostering community. One of the newer urban residents hired a band to play on their dock last summer and invited everyone to attend by boat. The party was quite a hit. I heard about it a few months later, when my childhood friends recounted the story during an afternoon pontoon boat ride around the lake. That was the first time I saw the transformation of the waterfront for myself; big, modern houses have replaced some of the old wooden A-frames of my childhood.

All of these changes don’t even include the tidal wave of cultural hot-button issues that have overtaken our nation’s discourse and sometimes seem alien from a rural perspective—from gender debates to racial demographic changes to fights over tearing down Civil War statues and restricting gun access. From places like Fayetteville, it is not hard to see the appeal of a political promise to  “drain the swamp” of a distant yet powerful government and to restore power to the “forgotten men and women” of the country. 

And while rural America may have been briefly in the spotlight at the forefront after the 2016 election, when President Trump won huge swaths of the demographic, its challenges still go largely unaddressed by their representatives in Washington, especially as a rift between rural and urban—and Republican and Democrat—continues to grow. 

At risk of being lost and swept away in these waves of change are these unique micro-cultures that define some of the most forgotten and overlooked rural places. They simply don’t have the power to preserve what they have. I think that what rural people want in the face of all this is some control over their lives. But a sense of control is increasingly difficult.

“Communities used to be self-determining,” the historian Mezger Cooper said. “They had a say in how things would be. But it’s been harder and harder to decide who you are going to be as a community.” Some people argue that rural places don’t know what’s best for themselves and vote against their own interests. In the case of Fayetteville, the people believe that they know exactly what their community needs and have always tried to pursue it, and that it has been outsiders who don’t understand. 

For Fayetteville, a century’s worth of such misunderstandings has had an impact. It is insular and distrustful of outsiders, at least at first. (I know this better than most; as transplants from New Jersey, it took my family years to feel like we were part of the community.)

There’s been a few studies on how this distrust manifests, especially when it comes to the government. A 2017 survey by the Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation found that two-thirds of rural people think those who live in big cities hold different values than them. More than 60 percent believe the federal government’s efforts “make things worse,” or have little impact. While I think they’d welcome help, they want a say in what that help looks like, and they’re not counting on that. 

Partly as a result of this sense of distrust, Fayetteville has gotten more Republican over the years; in 2008, roughly 65 percent of Perry Township voted for John McCain. By 2012, that republican vote trended upwards to 67 percent for Mitt Romney. In 2016, 76 percent of the township voted for Donald Trump. By 2020, that grew to nearly 79 percent.

In politics, the Republican Party says it stands for less government and less regulation. For less meddling in your life, especially when it comes to guns, healthcare, and schools. While some may argue that the Democratic Party should get credit for funding programs that send more dollars to rural America, the fact is that GOP messaging resonates. That promise of individual freedom, no matter how true, is the American dream for many of the rural people I know. For them, a sliver of freedom might feel like all that’s left.


In April 2023, I drove down the tree-flanked drive in St. Martin, the small community a few miles northeast of the village of Fayetteville, back to the Ursuline Sisters’ original grounds. Until recently, the Ursulines ran a two-year college, Chatfield College, on their property in St. Martin. In September 2022, due to declining enrollment, it was announced that Chatfield would transition to an educational nonprofit that assists disadvantaged students. 

St. Martin is only a mile from Fayetteville, and I’ve taken the picturesque drive to Chatfield’s campus many times. It always felt like it was a little out of place in such an isolated, remote village. St. Martin lost its post office, church, and corner store years ago. Growing up, I’d visit the grounds of the college for summer camps, where we’d play games in the gymnasium and run outside on the meandering drives near the old convent and chapel and cemetery. 

This visit was to see something I had never seen before, nor even knew was there: the graves of some of the most influential Catholics in the founding of Perry Township, Archbishop John Purcell and Sister Julia Chatfield. 

Archbishop Purcell, a hero to Perry Township, is nonetheless a divisive figure in Cincinnati’s history. His tenure ended in financial ruin for the archdiocese. He left all its financial operations to his brother, also a priest, Father Edward Purcell, who made a series of poor investments that led to its total collapse. In The Cross in the Wilderness, Sister Monica says Purcell “fell by the two-edged sword of his own charity. Julia Chatfield knew of his glory as well as his gloom.” I like to think that the Archbishop’s retreat to Perry Township, along with his brother, for their final years of life was partly because it was a place of acceptance, flaws and all. 

As I looked at Sister Julia Chatfield’s grave, I wondered if she died with the fear she wrote about once, that settling in Perry Township was a “forlorn venture.” What would she say if she could see the place now, with the downsizing of the college that once shared her name? Or if she could see that St. Martin’s chapel sits shuttered. Or that the vibrant parish that was once called St. Patrick’s in Fayetteville is fading? 

It’s a similar question to the one I’ve been asking myself for years in the aftermath of the 2016 election, when pundits first tried to explain why rural America largely voted for President Trump. After that thunderbolt, some of them wrote off rural places as “forlorn ventures.” Others stereotyped the region’s people as “angry,” full of “rage.” Some of them point to what they see as hypocrisy, given how some farmers receive copious government aid, as do red states. 

But I am not among them. Why do I think rural America is worth preserving and fighting for?  An answer of sorts came to me in the presence of Archbishop Purcell and Sister Chatfield after all these years. 


Welcome to Fayetteville. Photo taken in November 2023 by Kellianne Jones.

The story of Fayetteville and similar rural places is a story about what’s at the heart of America: people with limited means taking extraordinary measures to build a life in a place they can call their own. It’s not about the privileged or the powerful, who had so much influence over what our cities and our government have become, but about regular people who are at work building their own version of America, even if the world seems stacked against them.They built little corners of this country, corners that no one else wanted, into communities that have their own unique way of life.

It seems to me that the thing most Americans want these days is a sense of control in a changing world. That desire for control is what motivates everything from where people choose to live to how they vote. People in a rural community like Fayetteville have seen their way of life slowly devalued by demographic and economic forces and powerful entities that moved the heart of American society away, towards cities. In response, sometimes rural people hold extra tightly to their roots. 

As I experienced when I moved away, it is easy to lose yourself if you’re not grounded in something. For me, and likely lots of other people who hail from rural America, the thing that I held onto wasn’t race or ethnicity, not tribe or class, but where I came from. My roots kept me aware of who I was when confronted with what I didn’t want to be. 

Peggy Mezger Cooper, a Fayetteville native who, like me, moved away from home years ago but in some ways never left, put it this way: “You lose who you are. Who you are comes out of the past. It’s what roots you. It’s the soil you’re growing in. And without that history, without that soil, you don’t grow.” 

Rural America’s stories are largely unwritten—and even disappearing, as millions of acres of farmland are lost. Cities are expanding outward and family farms are sold off to developers. The loss of this intrinsically American place is something on my mind in my new home in Loudoun County, Virginia, on the outskirts of Washington D.C. Today, it’s one of the richest counties in the country, but its rural roots are still detectable here and there, if you pass an old country store or head out to the western border, farther from the city. Only decades ago, the county was primarily farmland. Every now and then, I’ll pass a yard sign that says “Save Rural Loudoun,” put up by people desperate to hold on to aspects of the home they recognize. It seems like a losing battle, and I wonder what is being lost with every new characterless subdivision. 

Fayetteville, among other things, is dealing with a different type of change: a nationwide demographic shift on religion. The town is not letting go of its roots in the name of this change; it’s trying to hold onto them in the face of it. As my former Fayetteville art teacher, Kim Weiderhold, put it, “Our families are buried here, and we will be buried here. A hundred years from now, we hope you can see our lineage, and look around and see what we worked for.” 

Looking around Fayetteville today, it may not seem like much. There’s still only one stoplight, an empty-looking downtown, and some houses nearby in varying states of disrepair. But there are signs of hope, too, that maybe Fayetteville can avoid the fate of so many other towns that lose their roots and begin to decay. A lifelong Fayetteville native has started a coffee shop, the first in our village, and the only place to get breakfast besides the gas station. The church festival on Labor Day weekend is just as popular as it has been for decades. For now, St. Patrick’s-turned-St. Angela Merici still stands as it always has, its exterior meticulously well-kept, painted just as bright white as it always has been. The people there are not giving up. 

Kellianne at the Republican primary debate in Simi Valley, CA. Photo taken in September 2023 by Paige Dukeman.

In the years it took for me to think about and research and write this story, I have remained torn between my professional life and my small town roots. The nation, too, remains bitterly divided, and that division seems to grow wider with every major news event. The political tribalism of today is not only split among ideological lines, but also geographical ones; on a map, you can see cities in blue and everywhere else, a shade of red. Friends of mine on both sides of this color war have casually remarked that we’d be better off as two countries, with no regard to how personal that feels to people like me, who straddle both worlds. Who love both sides of America. Am I supposed to choose between my family, firmly rooted in a red-leaning place, or my career, friends, and fiancé, in a blue-leaning place? 

Fayetteville’s people have kept me grounded in the most difficult times of my life. Growing up in the midst of wide, open space always gave me the room to dream. No other view can soften my eyes like land stretching as far as I can see. 

In the places that I’ve chosen to live, meanwhile—big blue cities and their largely blue suburbs—I feel like I’m in the melting pot that America was meant to be. The hustle and bustle is energizing and the diversity is inspiring. I’ve learned that people and their cultures that seem so different are more similar than we think. 

The America I love has both rural places and cities, with complicated roots that extend deep and wind into our common soil. In a country that is increasingly divided, I feel pressure to pick a side. But I’ll stay where I am, firmly planted on the dividing line, though always glancing toward the country, remembering where I came from.

It may seem like I’m not making a stand, but I am: I refuse to choose. 

Kellianne Jones covers politics for Fox News.