The landmark St. Mary Star of the Sea, named for Newport's spectacular lake vista, reflects the impact of French Quebec on this border community. It was the ambitious project of Father Antoine Clermont, who sought to replace an outgrown frame church on Pleasant Street (1882) with a permanent home for his largely French Canadian parish. In 1903 he purchased a site at the highest point on the peninsula, commissioned designs, and began assembling three hundred wagonloads of Derby granite. Prominent Montreal architect Doran was responsible for the design. He had completed Gothic Revival churches for the English-speaking Roman Catholic parishes of St. Patrick in Montreal and St. Joseph in Ottawa. For Newport, Doran and his associate architect, Seguin, turned to French Jesuit traditions, emulating the twin-towered facades and domical belfries that characterized monumental Quebecois churches since the late-seventeenth-century designs for Notre Dame de Quebec. This church, though, with its rusticated masonry and repetitive round arches, is more Romanesque than the French Baroque typical of the Quebecois. The powerful facade is dominated by a full-height arch that rises into the gable from a pair of massive columns, embracing a recessed entrance wall. It is buttressed by sturdy flanking towers. Decoration includes marked voussoirs, corbeled cornices, and significant muntin patterns.
The Vermont diocese, recognizing that the imposing design was far beyond the means of the modest parish, sought to block construction, but Father Clermont persisted with the support of his parishioners, gifts and loans from local businesses, volunteer labor (including his own), and the assistance of local architect-builder George D. Story (builder of the 1890 Congregational Church by A. P. Cutting downtown). The interiors were finished with tinted glass (all but the overdoor windows replaced by stained glass in 1958) and grisaille paintings of the life of Christ by St.-Eustache, Quebec, artist Naphtali Rochon, a pupil of Canadian painter, architect, and church decorator Napoléon Bourassa. Rochon based his paintings on originals by James Tissot that are considered the visual climax of the late-nineteenth-century Catholic revival in France and were exhibited and published extensively between 1894 and 1900.
Placed under interdiction for his obstinacy, Clermont was transferred just before the building was completed. His parish went into bankruptcy, taking half a century to extinguish its debt. Clermont's “impossible dream” became known as the “Cathedral of the North,” and it stands high above the lake as a proud statement of French heritage.