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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The Kolze monument
The Kolze monument

Like many of the folks fighting to preserve the cemetery, Sell has connections to the land around O’Hare and St. Johannes that extend back into the middle of the 19th century. One of his great-great-great-grandfathers, Christian Dierking, farmed the property now occupied by the United Airlines terminal. Another great-great-great-grandfather was Henry Kolze, who, with his extended family, left an indelible mark on the land he settled. The suburb of Schiller Park, just east of the airport, was originally known as Kolze (pronounced COAL-zee), and today the largest monument at St. Johannes Cemetery, a 30-foot-tall obelisk, bears the Kolze name.

With other immigrants from the German empire, Sell’s ancestors founded what is today St. John’s United Church of Christ. They built their first church in 1849, and that July, the congregation buried Catherine Wille in the adjoining graveyard, the first person laid to rest there. More graves followed, and in 1873, a new church went up. The most recent burial occurred in 2006.

According to Sell, parishioners—who fervently believed that the dead, once buried, should lie undisturbed until Judgment Day—would traditionally tend to the graves following Sunday morning services. This ritual went on for decades, as did the steady seasonal pace of the agricultural community. Things only began to change after World War II when the city of Chicago, looking to ease overcrowding at Midway Airport, began buying up the land around a little airport northwest of downtown. Known either as Douglas Field or Orchard Place, the airport was rechristened to honor a navy pilot and slain war hero named Edward “Butch” O’Hare.

To make way for O’Hare’s new and longer runways, church officials sold most of their land to the city. In 1952 they hoisted the church up on wheels and moved it into Bensenville, where it stands today on Route 83; a tall black cross in the cemetery marks the church’s original location. The five-acre cemetery remained behind, still the property of St. John’s, and today it’s hard up against the cargo depot and fleet of jets owned by FedEx. Just to the north, United and American jets taxi toward takeoff; passengers gazing out the windows can see a seven-foot-tall sign that cries out in big blue letters: DON’T TREAD ON US! AMERICAN, CHICAGO, UNITED! SAVE OUR CEMETERY!

Built beside the cemetery in 1873, the church was relocated to Bensenville in 1952.
Built beside the cemetery in 1873, the church was relocated to Bensenville in 1952.

The battle to save St. Johannes Cemetery began in the summer of 2001 after Mayor Daley announced his intentions to modernize O’Hare, where an antiquated layout of intersecting runways had slowed air traffic locally and nationally. By extending old runways and building new ones, Daley’s plan reconfigured the airport into six parallel runways, which would increase capacity and limit delays, all at a cost of $6 billion—money that would come from passenger ticket taxes and general airport revenue bonds, as well as contributions from the federal government. (The anticipated cost of the project has since escalated to $8 billion, which the city attributes to inflation.) In addition, billions more are needed for new roads around the airport, a proposed extension of the CTA Blue Line, and other improvements. What’s more, the airlines, confronted by shrinking revenues, are now suggesting the city rethink the breadth of the expansion plan.

That plan called for the acquisition of more than 400 acres and the demolition of hundreds of suburban homes and businesses, primarily in Bensenville and Elk Grove Village. It also required the relocation of bodies buried not only at St. Johannes but also at Rest Haven Cemetery, a Methodist burial ground with about 110 graves some 350 yards south of St. Johannes.

As for St. Johannes, many of its allies in opposing the expansion have gradually fallen away. Changes to the original plan have scaled back the impact on Elk Grove Village, prompting its mayor, Craig Johnson, to say he will no longer oppose the plan. In hard-hit Bensenville, its longtime village president, John Geils, perhaps the most vociferous opponent of the expansion, recently lost a bid for reelection; his successor, Frank Soto, has signaled a willingness to cooperate with airport officials. Even tiny Rest Haven Cemetery is no longer involved in the battle; the relocation of a planned cargo depot means Rest Haven can stay where it is—though it will one day adjoin a concrete apron leading into the cargo bay.

Nonetheless, the supporters of St. Johannes vow to continue the fight, their resolution fueled, in part, by what they see as Daley’s arrogant introduction of the plan as a fait accompli. “There were no negotiations,” says the Rev. Michael Kirchhoff, a member of St. John’s church. “The city simply made an announcement that they were going to take the cemetery.” Chicago city officials counter that they reached out to church leaders, making an offer in March 2006 of $630,000 for the cemetery land. (Then, as now, the city also agreed to absorb all costs of relocating the bodies.) “We would accept no amount of money,” Kirchhoff declares. “This is sacred land, not to be bartered away.”

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Photography: (Image 1) Kim Thornton, (Image 2) Courtesy of St. John’s United Church of Christ

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