Supreme Court allows mass grave exhumation to make way for O’Hare runway

The city of Chicago was granted permission Wednesday to relocate the remains of about 1,200 people buried in a cemetery near O’Hare International Airport to make way for a new runway.

The state’s Supreme Court denied a request by officials from St. John’s United Church of Christ in Bensenville to hear the case, letting a 2nd District Appellate Court ruling stand and paving the way for the mass exhumation at St. Johannes Cemetery.

City aviation department officials said there is no timeline for the relocation to begin but said it would happen soon. When the timeline is settled, officials at the aviation department said they wouldn’t release specifics, to protect the privacy of the families involved.

About 30 graves already have been relocated voluntarily and families of another 345 descendants have agreed to have their relatives’ remains relocated, city officials said.

Joseph Karaganis, an attorney representing the church and families opposing relocation, said the high court’s decision was “disappointing.” He said they may appeal the state court’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We are examining what our various options are and that’s certainly one of them,” he said.

The new runway is part of a multibillion-dollar expansion of the nation’s second-busiest airport. Aviation department officials said the new runway configuration outlined in the modernization plans will reduce overall delays by 79 percent and bad-weather delays by 95 percent.

“We realize this is a very sensitive matter and we remain committed to work closely with the families, as well as the officials from the church, during the relocation process,” said Rosemarie Andolino, aviation department commissioner.

The state Supreme Court reaffirmed earlier decisions by both the DuPage County Circuit Court and the 2nd District Appellate Court with its ruling. But Karaganis said the relocation violates constitutional religious rights, and those issues have never been argued. Some of the people buried in the cemetery have been there for more than 150 years and are immigrants who fled religious persecution in Europe, the attorney said.

Karaganis also complained that in light of a recent lawsuit filed by United and American Airlines to halt O’Hare’s modernization plan, it’s unnecessary to disturb the graves.

The airlines are suing the city because they don’t believe airport usage warrants the costly expansion that they will have to help shoulder. They also contend they have had no say in the process, which violates their usage contracts at the airport, according to court documents.

“What’s very discouraging is that Chicago will destroy this sacred cemetery with full knowledge the project will collapse under its own weight,” Karaganis said. “It’s not just us saying that; it’s the airlines that use that airport.”

The city paid $630,000 nearly a year ago for the cemetery land.