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Fire Damages Historic Estate with Painful Past in Whitinsville

By Tom Marino | March 1, 2024
Last Updated: March 1, 2024

WHITINSVILLE – A five-alarm fire early Friday morning caused significant damage to a historic property in Whitinsville.

Fire broke through the roof of the Oakhurst Manor, at 120 Hill St., and damaged the upper floors of the building. The current property owners reported that no one was injured in the fire. The extent of the damage is not yet clear.

According to the Grafton Fire Department, who supported the response to the fire, the State Fire Marshal’s office and the investigation team for District 7 are investigating the fire.

The property currently houses Estate of Mind, which describes itself as a DIY arts collective, which operates as a 501(c)3 through a fiscal sponsor. It advertises itself as an event venue, creator community, film and photography location, and co-living residence that is volunteer run. Its scheduled events have been cancelled.

According to the real estate website Zillow, the property was listed for sale on Feb. 7 for $2.5 million. The Estate of Mind website says Sparr Risher and Victoria Dobbs, a couple, purchased the property on Halloween weekend in 2021. According to the Worcester County Registry of Deeds, the current mortgage was executed by Sparr Risher for $1.48 million in November 2022.

The property was built in 1890 by Chester Whitin-Lasell, grandson of John Crane Whitin. Whitinsville was named after Whitin.

The Estate of Mind website acknowledge the troubled history of the property on its website.

Role in Catholic Priest Abuse

Then Worcester Diocese Rev. Thomas Kane co-founded the House of Affirmation at the Whitinsville locattion in 1973, which operated until 1990. The location was a treatment center for priests with psychological and psychosexual problems

According to a Worcester Telegram and Gazette article on June 12, 1990, Kane stepped down in the face of accusation he was siphoning off thousands of dollars to buy real estate for himself. The facility closed in 1989.

Kane went on to serve as an associate pastor at Sacred Heart Parish in Gardner in 1992. In 1993, Kane was removed from ministry for allegations of sexual abuse in the 1970s.

According to the Telegram article in March 2013, Kane was named with a group of priests in a confidential settlement in 1993 where a man accused Kane of molesting him for several years, beginning when he was 9 years old. The abuse allegely took place at the House of Affirmation. Kane was defrocked in 2013.

The Diocese of Worcester operated the property as the Oakhurst Retreat and Conference Center starting in 2003, which was home to its Office of Youth Ministry.

The property was sold to preservationist James Knott Sr. in 2012. The Diocese of Worcester conditioned the sale on Knott’s agreement to not hold gay weddings at the location. Knott died in 2018. His heirs sold the property to Risher in 2021.

The Estate of Mind website says the use of the facility is free of charge, as availability permits, queer couples who would like to host weddings on our property. It also says a LGBTQ+ Pride flag was flown over Oahkust Manor.

Image Credit: Grafton Fire Department/ Facebookby Matthew Gregoire

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