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posted: 2/28/2010 12:01 AM

One family's experience with St. Johannes grave removals

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  • A farmhouse owned by the Wiemerslage family. Their first farm was purchased by the city of Chicago to build O'Hare International Airport.

    A farmhouse owned by the Wiemerslage family. Their first farm was purchased by the city of Chicago to build O'Hare International Airport.
    Courtesy/Kim Emerson


It was Kim Emerson's wrenching task to watch over the removal of seven family graves from the St. Johannes Cemetery in mid-February.

The historical cemetery is at the center of a long-standing controversy because it's also at the center of a runway under construction by the city of Chicago.

St. Johannes sits at the south end of one of the world's busiest airports. Chicago is in the midst of an ambitious plan to modernize and expand the airport by constructing six parallel runways.

Like any cemetery relocation issue, it's an emotional crucible for the relatives involved. Numerous families with loved ones buried at St. Johannes are fighting to stop the city from acquiring the cemetery, which also involves moving the graves.

But the Wiemerslage clan isn't among them.

"I was so blessed," said Emerson, a descendant. "This window of opportunity to move my family members and act on my aunt's behalf has been phenomenal."

Emerson's great-aunt Mable, age 96, never forgot watching her first child, Eileen, die hours after birth.

The infant's grave was relocated to a local cemetery where her father lies and where Mable will eventually be put to rest.

"She thought she might never have the opportunity to have her baby with her. We now are in a position where she is able to go to her rest, knowing her child is safe next to her, which is a great comfort," Emerson said. Eileen is her second cousin.

"They have not been together for an extraordinarily long time."

Emerson's great-great-grandfather, Hermann Heinrich, and great-great-grandmother, Fenne Maria, left Westfalen, Prussia in 1861 and sailed to America on the ship Shakespeare.

The Wiemerslages settled in the area and decades later their first farm was purchased by Chicago to build O'Hare.

"They immigrated in pursuit of a better life for their children and for themselves," Emerson said. "They came with hopes and dreams like every other immigrant family."

And like other new Americans, the Wiemerslages lived through triumphs and tragedies.

Emerson's first cousin twice removed, Edna, died before her first birthday. She was moved next to her parents and sister. "After 102 years, they are together again," Emerson said.

The graves of Hermann and Fenne were also relocated along with two children Heinrich, 13, and Minna, 3. The two children died in a wagon accident on the way back from a visit to St. Johannes. The seventh relative whose grave was moved is Emerson's great-great-great grandfather, Gerhard Heinrich.

"They've been interred as closely as possible as space allows. The infants were provided with new markers so there will always be an acknowledgment of their existence and they can be honored with the rest of the family," said Emerson, who lives in Rhode Island but grew up in the suburbs.

A DuPage County judge granted Chicago title to St. Johannes but families fighting the takeover appealed and on Feb. 18 the appellate court granted a temporary stay. Emotions run high in this issue and relatives who oppose the changes have said it's sacrilege for a secular authority to take the cemetery and move the graves.

Officials with Chicago, which is paying for the relocations, said they would discontinue disinterments until the issue is resolved and said people seeking information can call (773) 686-5136.

For herself, Emerson says the city and its representatives "showed my family nothing but respect and dignity. I would encourage any person with relatives at St. Johannes to ask questions. Get the facts for yourself."