Little church defends cemetery against big airport
Written by Carol Pavlik
January-February 2003

To reach St. Johannes cemetery in Bensenville, Ill., one drives on a poorly marked dirt road through a wooded area. To the right is Rest Haven cemetery, a small graveyard owned by a Methodist church in town. Further down the road, the twisted branches suddenly give way to open sky, where the tallest monuments and a simple wooden cross at St. Johannes cemetery make a stark impression against the sky.

There is that eerie silence often felt at a cemetery until, suddenly, a commercial jet thunders overhead. Just beyond a security fence laced with barbed wire, the unlikely neighbor of this 153- year-old burial ground is O'Hare International Airport, one of the nation's busiest.

St. John's UCC in Bensenville has been trying to save St. Johannes Cemetery ever since the summer of 2001, when Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago announced his $6.6 billion plan to expand O'Hare airport. The expansion would push out some 539 residences and 109 business, and place a runway right over the two cemeteries.

The city wishes to acquire the St. Johannes cemetery land and remove the bodies from their current resting places to another location. On Nov. 12, St. John's UCC filed a lawsuit in an attempt to maintain ownership of the cemetery, asserting that the city does not have the right to take the land without the church's consent.

Four generations buried there

Approximately 1,300 parishioners are buried at St. Johannes Cemetery, including four generations of ancestors of church spokesperson Bob Sell.

"The notion of what the city has proposed here is about as insensitive a design as we could possibly imagine," says Sell. "Clearly, the plan for expansion of O'Hare is a very big plan involving a lot of acres. The notion that they would design the plan so that a runway goes directly through a threeacre parcel of a religious cemetery is astounding."

Not so astounding, maintains Jennifer Hoyle, spokesperson for the City of Chicago's Law Department. In Illinois, Hoyle says, cemeteries are relocated all the time to make way for public projects. In the 1950s, she says, cemeteries were relocated to make way for Chicago's Eisenhower Expressway. Since then, others have been moved for the construction of shopping malls, golf courses and condominiums. Hoyle could not verify whether these cemeteries were owned by religious or secular organizations.

Hoyle says state law gives the city authority to obtain the land through the Illinois Eminent Domain Act.

"Eminent domain implies that the owners are not consenting," explains Hoyle. "If they were, you wouldn't need to condemn the property."

"We're going to try to do this in the most sensitive way possible, but at this point, we're at the very early stages of just trying to reach out to families to obtain information," she says.

Sensitivity questioned

By law, the city must attempt to make contact with relatives of the deceased by posting notices in the newspapers and placing signs near the cemeteries with phone numbers for relatives to call for further information. Randy Putman, former church council president and cemetery committee member, questions the city's sensitivity. Last winter he was denied access to the cemetery by city-appointed security guards. Mourners also were turned away.

Although city officials explained that the cemetery was locked down for security reasons relating to September 11, church officials felt the church was being unfairly targeted. When they complained, the city backed down, but guards were still on site to demand identification to anyone entering the cemetery. The city has subsequently backed down from that, too. Now mourners are allowed to come and go freely during visiting hours.

The church went through an exchange of letters with the city, informing them that it was against the law to cut off access to a property owner's property.

"We had to explain that visitation is a perfectly normal part of the process of grieving and also a very important part of the church's views on life and death, to act as a caretaker for those that lie at rest in the cemetery," says Sell.

"Clearly," Sell continues, "I think it's all been intended to put pressure on what is a relatively small church and try to cause them to give up on their religious beliefs."

Putman agrees. "It's a case of David and Goliath," he says. Putman feels the expansion is Mayor Daley's pet project, a torch that may or may not be carried on by a new mayor. Daley has announced that he will be running for a fifth term as mayor of Chicago.

Putman sighs. "Everyone would expect that he'd be elected for another four years. He's only 60, so he could be around for quite a while yet," he says. "But I'm only 46."

Carol Pavlik, a free-lance writer based in Elmhurst, Ill., is editor of Across the UCC.

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