Church fighting city's efforts to condemn cemetery

Sept. 11, 2009

St. Johannes Cemetery is surrounded by an active runway on the north. To the south, graders build a new road that kisses the edge of the cemetery.

There is construction everywhere as part of the O'Hare expansion. It is a gigantic construction zone with a 160-year-old cemetery as neighbor.

The city has long been in court seeking to condemn St. Johannes because it sits where a new runway would go. Church owners have steadfastly resisted, calling it sacred ground.

Now, the city is re-aligning the access road to the cemetery, which means visitors must follow a much more circuitous route.

"It's intimidating. This roadway will be bordered in by fences and concertina wire, almost like driving through a maximum security prison," said Rev. Michael Kirchhoff, a St. Johannes member.

Kirchhoff has relatives buried at the cemetery. While he doesn't suggest there is an ulterior motive behind the road re-alignment, others in the church call it part of a hostile public relations campaign meant to weaken the church's resolve in what has been a long, expensive court fight.

The city says the road change is necessary to accommodate a relocation of FedEx, which must also move because of the planned new runway.

O'Hare expansion will not move a second cemetery, Resthaven, which is located a bit south of St. Johannes. It will stay and be surrounded by a blast fence.

Meanwhile, the city's effort to condemn St. Johannes returns to court later in September.

As the landscape around the cemetery has significantly changed, church members say they've heard over and over, it's a done deal, give it up. That's something they say they cannot do.

"I live my faith, and my faith says I'm standing with thousands of other family members for a just and proper cause and that's the preservation of this sacred land," Kirchhoff said.

The city says the redesigned access road is not about intimidation, but is about the necessity of moving forward with the O'Hare modernization project and that the legal fights, under way for eight years now, are delaying tactics.

The church hopes the U.S. Supreme Court will agree in October to hear its religious rights argument. However, that is considered a long shot.

Although the condemnation case is up for a status hearing later this month, a decision date may be months away.

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