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Dead Reckoning

Part of O’Hare’s expansion has stalled, blocked by the religious beliefs and constitutional claims of the 160-year-old St. Johannes Cemetery. With the court battle nearing its end, time may have run out for the old burial ground

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O'Hare expansion stalled by St. Johannes Cemetery
O’Hare expansion is encroaching on St. Johannes Cemetery.


In the 1840s, the Kolze brothers—Henry, William, and Frederick—left behind the kingdom of Prussia for the prairies of Illinois. Settling on the wild but fertile lands northwest of the growing city of Chicago, they and their compatriots carved out farms and orchards, raised families, and established a church with an adjoining cemetery—where, following their deaths, they were buried. As the decades passed, a hectic urban pace slowly replaced the rural community’s seasonal ebb and flow, a change especially evident at a tiny local airfield, which, in the years after World War II, transmogrified into one of the world’s busiest transportation centers: O’Hare International Airport.

But now those long-dead Kolze brothers have risen up to halt the march of progress. For the last eight years, they and their 1,200 neighbors interred at the verdant 160-year-old St. Johannes Cemetery have stymied efforts to launch O’Hare into the 21st century. Not far from downtown Bensenville, right at the point where Cook County butts up against DuPage, the Kolzes’ final resting place stands smack in the path of a planned 10,000-foot-long landing strip dubbed Runway 10 Center. Slated to open in 2012, and an integral part of Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley’s multibillion-dollar plan to modernize O’Hare, the runway is currently little more than a narrow line on a blueprint. Although preliminary work has begun on 10 Center’s east and west ends, the city has yet to acquire the land that lies between them. That’s where St. Johannes Cemetery sits, about a mile east of the intersection of York and Irving Park roads. The descendants of the people buried there want to hang on to the five-acre burial ground until, as the New Testament has it, the final trumpet sounds and angels are sent forth to gather the elect.

Which obviously presents a problem for the folks trying to rearrange O’Hare. “You can’t build a runway with a curve in it,” says Rosemarie S. Andolino, Chicago’s commissioner of aviation and, since 2003, the executive director of the O’Hare Modernization Program. Runway 10 Center is a crucial part of that program—“of a compelling governmental interest,” to cite the secular legal argument—and therefore the cemetery must go. After a fiercely waged legal battle, it appears that airport authorities may soon be allowed to disperse the bodies resting at St. Johannes to neighboring cemeteries.

Not so fast, say the cemetery’s champions. “If anyone out there thinks we’re not operating with a lot of faith, they’re mistaken,” says Bob Sell, a spokesman for the church affiliated with the cemetery. “We’re not giving up.”

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Photograph: Chicago Tribune photo by George Thompson



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