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Appellate court stops grave removal at St. Johannes Cemetery
By Kerry Lester | Daily Herald Staff

The Illinois Appellate Court issued a temporary restraining order late Thursday that stops the city of Chicago from removing graves from St. Johannes Cemetery, which borders O'Hare International Airport.


Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

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Published: 2/18/2010 5:47 PM | Updated: 2/19/2010 7:53 AM

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An Illinois appellate court has ordered the city of Chicago to temporarily stop removing graves from a historic Bensenville cemetery in the path of a new O'Hare International Airport runway.

The pastor of the church that owns St. Johannes Cemetery Thursday called the move a step in the right direction, but he acknowledged much work still lies ahead.

"We'll be going to the appellate court who issued the injunction with the many issues previously ignored by the courts," the Rev. Michael Kirchhoff said.

The ruling comes less than two weeks after DuPage Circuit Judge Hollis Webster granted the city's request for a "quick take" of the cemetery, which came with a $630,000 price tag. City officials began removing graves just this week.

The cemetery, which contains approximately 1,200 graves, was founded by St. Johannes Church, now known as St. John's United Church of Christ, in 1849.

According to a Chicago Department of Aviation news release, 24 graves so far have been voluntarily relocated to nearby cemeteries, with the department footing the bill for "necessary and reasonable" costs.

"That's how they operate," Kirchhoff said of the Department of Aviation. "They just come in here and start going. And maybe because they knew we'd get the injunction, they felt they had to (move quickly)."

Chicago plans to build six parallel runways and a western terminal to ease congestion, a project expected to be complete by 2014. One runway would cut directly through the cemetery.

For years, the village of Bensenville and the church fought airport expansion in tandem. But the new village leadership recently settled lawsuits with Chicago for $16 million to allow the demolition of more than 500 homes and other properties.

Attorneys for St. John's argued the relocation of graves assaults the religious beliefs of the deceased who are buried in the cemetery, but the city has won numerous earlier rulings by state and federal courts on the issue.

On Feb. 10, the attorneys filed a motion for a stay against Webster's order with the appellate court, citing four provisions in the Illinois and U.S. constitutions that protected religious rights.

"We said there are some very important constitutional issues that involved religious rights that the circuit court had refused to hear," attorney Joseph Karaganis said Thursday. "It would make no sense if the cemetery was gone by the time the appellate court heard these issues."

Kirchhoff said he was unsure of whose graves had been removed. The city has allowed direct family members to be at the cemetery as disinterments took place.

"The church is in a tough place," he said. "It wants to protect its land but respect families who do want their loved ones disinterred.

"I hope families don't take this wrong. None of this has been an effort to try and step on families' wishes. This is just an effort to try to protect families.

"There are far more families who don't want their loved ones moved than those who do."

Depending on the type of grave site, Kirchhoff said a disinterment can take anywhere from an hour and a half to more than a day.

In a written statement, Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino said the Chicago Department of Aviation was disappointed by the court's decision.

Like Kirchhoff, she gave no indication of letting up.

"We understand this is an emotional process for the families involved. It is our intention to coordinate these relocations in as seamless a manner as possible while respecting the families' wishes, once the court allows. "

According to ABC 7, 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 ensure we have the best provider of this service here," Andolino said.