Court order stops grave removal near O'Hare

February 18, 2010 3:49:48 PM PST
A state appellate court granted a temporary restraining order Thursday evening that will stop further disinterments at St. Johannes Cemetery, which borders O'Hare Airport.The City of Chicago had started removing graves from the historic cemetery this week.

The graves were being removed to make way for the airport expansion project.

Relatives of those buried at St. Johannes Cemetery have been part of a long and emotional battle to keep the city from disturbing the gravesites. They say the process will be long and slow and they realize how emotional it will be for relatives of those buried there.

What had started this week in the shadow of a busy runway at O'Hare comes after a nearly decade long battle in the courts over religious rights and eminent domain - a city that wants to grow its airport versus a church that wants to preserve a resting ground for eternity.

Earlier this month, the city won title to the cemetery in a condemnation action, and will pay the church $630,000.

There was another disinterment Thursday at St Johannes Cemetery. It was a solemn occasion for relatives who have asked for a measure of privacy in what has been a very public, eight-year long legal fight.

The cemetery - which sits right off O'Hare runway 10-left 28-right - was started by St. Johannes Church in 1849. It is unclear exactly how many are buried there. By one estimate it's around 1,200. They were all to be moved to make way for a new runway that would cut directly through the center of the burial ground. Thursday's restraining order put a stop to that.

Earlier this month, the city won its legal fight, took title to the five-acre cemetery, and began the process of contacting next of kin.

"We know it's an emotional process and we want to make it as seamless as possible and provide them the necessary support to get them through this process," said Rosemarie Andolino, Chicago aviation commissioner.

The disinterments so far - roughly 20, the city says - have been voluntary. Some of the grave sites are being relocated to a nearby cemetery in Elmhurst.

But others with family at St Johannes remain furious at what they contend is an unnecessary land grab, and a fundamental violation of their religious rights.

Some were angered by information on the city's Web site saying that the cemetery office would not permit family members to be present at the grave site of their loved ones, nor could they be present during transfer of remains.

ABC7 asked about that Thursday, and a spokesperson said it was a mistake. Shortly thereafter, it was removed from the Web site.

Family members, ABC7 was told, have in fact been allowed to witness the disinterments. The city planned to expedite the grave removal come spring, but locating remains of early settlers - like the church's first pastor and his large family, all buried in pine boxes - cannot be rushed. "It's a very sensitive process. It's a very careful process, but one they are very skilled at so we left it to the professionals to insure we have the best provider of this service here," said Andolino.

ABC7 asked how successful the city has been in locating next of kin to all those buried at St. Johannes. The answer at this point is unclear. The city had been paying for all the grave relocations, provided they were within a 50-mile radius.

Those most fervently opposed to the city's action didn't want to talk on camera Thursday.