For the past 31 years, a 94-year-old World War II veteran built and cared for an enormous hillside cross in Northern California as a tribute to Jesus and American service members who made the ultimate sacrifice. But recently, the owner of the property informed Arvo Kannisto of Santa Rosa, that he may no longer visit the 127-foot high memorial made of rocks that is so prominent, can be viewed via Google Earth.
I had the great honor and privilege of speaking with the Army veteran who served 25 years in active and reserve duty and worked with the San Francisco Police Department for many years. I also spoke to his loving and supportive wife, Patricia to gain more insight on the history of the cross. In fact it was the hillside cross that brought the two together, culminating in their marriage just last month. The devout Christian couple are deeply saddened by the notion of being denied access to the cross and fear that grass will grow over it, which might allow the stone laden cross to disappear from view. Kannisto’s desire is to be able to resume access to the cross for maintenance, prayer and reflection while seeking out someone who someday might take over the reign of overseeing his decades long labor of love.
The hillside cross, just east of the city nestled within the California Wine Country, is estimated to contain 3,000 rocks which are painted white and some of which weigh 100 pounds. For a Google Maps view of the cross, click on this link. He believes one reason why he is still alive and healthy is because of his daily hikes up the hillside, while carrying a load of rocks with him. What impressed me even further was Patricia’s comment that her staunchly religious husband performs 50 pushups daily. His exercise regimen is a testament to his strong will and what I’m certain he would agree, is his strong faith in Jesus.
Lt. Col. Kannisto is known as a “Mustang”, which in military vernacular, is defined as a service member who entered service as an enlisted member but later earned a commission as an officer. He first entered into the Army just prior to the Pearl Harbor attack and vividly recalls how much he was angered by the atrocities of war, which compelled him to serve overseas. Because he had flight experience as a civilian, he sought to become an officer quite early in his career but because he had only completed just 1.5 years in college, the request was initially denied. He eventually entered Officer Candidate School (OCS), which led to a watch commander position with the military police while stationed in France. He points out that his brother’s Naval ship was nearly destroyed just before the end of the war off the coast of Marseille by a Kamikaze plane, that crashed into the sea, barely missing the ship.
Shortly after returning to the states, the Kanniosto brothers worked for the San Francisco Police Department and both served more than three decades. A few years later, Arvo became inspired to build a cross while on board an airplane bound for his vacation in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. As the plane descended through heavy layers of clouds, he saw what he initially thought was a vision of Jesus but eventually realized that the plane was passing by the famed Christ the Redeemer statue atop Corcovado Mountain.
In 1981, the retired police Lieutenant of Finnish heritage, was granted his request to build a cross originally meant to be just 25 feet high. But over the years, the cross began to evolve into its present day size of 127 feet high and 67 feet wide. While there have been incidents of vandalism to the cross, he also says many more have gone to the cross to help with the maintenance. It is because of others who have trespassed on the property of owner Carl Merner and the liability risks involved that forced the landowner to advise the 94-year-old veteran he could no longer venture up the hillside cross, despite his reassurances that he would assume all responsibility in the event of an injury.
As it stands for now, Kannisto is barred from the hillside cross and is brought to tears whenever he recounts the current situation. Fortunately some supporters have reached out to Mr. Merner and are attempting to restore access privileges to Arvo. I personally hope that this man of faith, who served our country for so many years, can once again, resume daily visits to the memorial cross. A recent comment he made to the local media pretty much sums it up: “This cross means to me a love symbol. There is too much hate in the world.”
If anyone interested in aiding the Kannistos, please visit the Facebook page created by their supporters atwww.facebook.com/KeeperOfTheCross.