- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 23, 2015

INDEPENDENCE, Wis. (AP) - A church in western Wisconsin is exhuming bodies from more than 100 unmarked graves as part of a building project.

The graves are on the north side of Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Independence, about 32 miles south of Eau Claire. The remains will be identified as definitely as possible before being stored and reburied near their current location, the Leader-Telegram (https://bit.ly/1KAAN30 ) reported.

A Michigan-based company has been working with church and local authorities on the exhumations since Sept. 8. The work is expected to be completed by Oct. 2.

The church was planning to install an elevator when a couple of parishioners mentioned the unmarked graves on that side of the building. Before the work could proceed, the church had to determine if the graves were there, said Bill Baxa, chairman of the church’s Restoration Committee.

The sidewalk on the north side of the church, which is undergoing a $1.4 million renovation, was removed, and “in excess of 100 unmarked graves were located,” Baxa said.

“We have been trying to keep the parishioners aware of the process and status as best as possible,” Baxa said. A portable cyclone fence with a mesh covering was installed to deter gawkers “and protect and respect the integrity of the process,” he said.

On Tuesday, about 15 people associated with Commonwealth Cultural Resources Group from Jackson, Michigan, were digging, sifting and analyzing soil in the partitioned property. A number of sheets of plastic were also spread in the area being examined, which is several feet below the parking lot level.

An official with CCRG and Trempealeau County coroner Bonnie Kindschy both declined to comment, referring all questions to church officials.

Baxa believes many of those buried in the exhumation area may have been victims of a massive influenza outbreak in the 1890s and early 1900s. The caskets were largely made out of wood.

“Through the Wisconsin Historical Society we have all the proper permits and authorization to do this,” Baxa said. “Because it is an archaeological area, once the area in question is declared clean, the elevator addition can proceed.”

He emphasized that only graves affected by the construction are being moved.

“This whole process has been very interesting,” Baxa said. “We’ve learned a lot about church history, and we’ve done everything possible to be respectful during it all.”

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Information from: Leader-Telegram, https://www.leadertelegram.com/

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