Family-owned Stargazer Fine Chocolates is in the business of joy

Aaron Lambert

As a father and his young daughter walk through the door of Stargazer Fine Chocolates, the little girl excitedly scanning the shop and pointing to the chocolate hippos and colorful truffles, John D’Onofrio looks over with a smile and says, “That’s my joy.”

John’s daughter, Karen, is responsible for hand-crafting the many delectable treats that fill the shelves of Stargazer Fine Chocolates, but as John says, they’re really in the business of bringing joy to the community.

“What I really think we do is spread neighborhood and joy,” John said.

Stargazer has only been open for one year, but in that time, they’ve made quite a footprint in Denver’s Hilltop neighborhood, mostly through chocolate-filled, word-of-mouth accolades. And the chocolate really does speak for itself. What’s sweeter, however, is the unlikely tale of how Stargazer came to be.

From theology to…chocolate?

The D’Onofrio family are longtime parishioners of Christ the King Parish, which is where Stargazer’s story begins. After majoring in International Studies at the University of Denver, Karen spent two years in the Congo doing missionary work with the Kenoshan Daughters of Charity. Serving the people of Africa was a life-changing experience for Karen, but upon her return, she decided she wanted to spend time in her own community. However, she also returned with a new zeal for the faith and began pursuing a master’s degree in Theology through the Augustine Institute.

“Most AI grads do [something in] religious education, but I wasn’t as interested in that,” Karen said. “I saw it more as a life degree — knowing more about my faith would just help me in life.”

Karen graduated from the AI in 2015 and was met by another crossroads in her life. What was next? As it happened, her life would take an unexpected turn, one that neither her nor her dad nor any of her family would have ever guessed but has been a blessing from the start.

It started with a chocolatier the D’Onofrio family had gone to for years. John had become friendly with him over the years, and upon his retirement, they considered taking over his shop. While that didn’t end up happening, Karen, fresh out of the AI with a theology degree and no idea of what to do next, did what any reasonable theology graduate would do: She took on an apprenticeship with the family chocolatier and learned how to make chocolate. While John and his wife, Norene, initially questioned why Karen had spent all that time studying theology only to go and start making chocolate, they saw how happy it made her.

Karen D’Onforio (left), along with her father John (right) and the rest of her family, opened Stargazer Fine Chocolates in 2017. (Photo by Moira Cullings)

“Every time I went to the chocolate shop and saw her working in the back, she had a smile on her face,” John recalled. “That was what was most important for me.”

After diving into all things chocolate and learning everything there was to know, Karen became a master chocolatier. Next came the fun part: making chocolate.

“I set up shop in our dining room and got to work,” Karen said with a laugh. The first iteration of what would become Stargazer began by giving out the chocolates to friends and family. Eventually, they decided to “go for it” as a full-fledged business, Karen said.

After temporarily moving shop to a commissary kitchen in Montbello, Father Daniel Leonard, who was pastor of Christ the King at the time, offered the parish’s kitchen as Karen’s new working space. John, who has a background as a lawyer, jumped through the arduous hurdles of getting Christ the King’s kitchen the proper licenses to be able to sell out of.

While Stargazer worked out of Christ the King Parish, John affectionately remembers being called Willy Wonka by the children there because of all the chocolate he constantly had with him. From the beginning, a key part of Stargazer has been giving back to the community, and it started at the parish.

“We started making our chocolate there, “ John said. “We would have sales in the church hall after certain Masses. We gave all of our profits from those sales to the school there.”

A family affair

After growing steadily and getting a handle on production, it was time for Stargazer to find a more permanent home. Located at 700 Colorado Blvd., next to Snooze and across from Trader Joe’s, Stargazer offers tasty treats for all to enjoy, and has added a selection of hot beverages like coffee and, of course, hot cocoa, to its menu. They can even create custom chocolate bars with corporate logos and other personalized elements, which they have done for St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in the past.

Stargazer has operated as a family affair since the beginning. John handles the business and marketing side of things, Karen’s brother, Tim, is the assistant chocolatier for the shop, and Karen’s mom Norene takes care of everything else.

“Without [my mom], we would fall apart,” Karen said. “She packages almost everything, she finds the boxes we need…anything we need, she’ll take care of.”

The name Stargazer comes from the stargazer lily, which most Catholics know is an allusion to St. Joseph, the patron saint of workers. They even have an image of St. Joseph hanging on the wall of their shop.

“We also really like the name Stargazer because it’s dreamy and romantic and [it’s] chocolate,” Karen said. “It fit with the whole feeling of what we were going for.”

A custom chocolate with the St. John Vianney Seminary crest. (Photo by Moira Cullings)

You won’t find free Wi-Fi or a drive-thru window at Stargazer. What you will find is a cozy, welcoming atmosphere that invites face-to-face conversation, fellowship, and of course, the chance to indulge in delicious chocolate.

Karen insists that her theology background and understanding of the faith comes in handy when she’s making the chocolates. In fact, from a spiritual perspective, there’s a lot more to chocolate than people realize, she said.

“I try to make my chocolates beautiful and offering that beauty to the world is also something that is rooted in my faith — to make something that looks beautiful and tastes beautiful and can bring you joy,” she said. “I think chocolate is really something that has a theological value to it because it grows on the cacao tree and it’s very different. Humans have to engage our intellect that God gave us to figure out how to make chocolate from the cacao bean.”

These nods to Catholicism, however subtle, are intentional on the part of Stargazer, even though Karen jokes about having a “theologically-competent staff.” The faith of the D’Onofrio family isn’t just the foundation of how they treat other people; it is the heart of how they run their business. John recalled inviting an older woman waiting for a table at Snooze to come into the shop to have a seat. When the woman remarked that she wasn’t going to buy anything, John said he didn’t ask her to. He simply asked her to come sit down.

“It’s that simple,” he said. “You don’t have to look real far to be a good Christian or a good Catholic. Opportunities abound.”

Simplicity is what it’s all about for Karen, John and the rest of the D’Onofrio family, who want Stargazer to be known as a business that simply brings joy to the community.

“It’s such a happy business,” Karen said. “It’s joyful.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier edition of this article misstated which Denver neighborhood Stargazer Fine Chocolates is located in. It is part of the Hilltop neighborhood, not Hale. We apologize for the error.

COMING UP: Thomas Fitzsimons: The unsung Catholic Founding Father 

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As our nation celebrates the day of its independence and subsequent founding as a country on July 4, a look back some lesser-knowCatholic history of this historic event seems warranted.  

George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin: these are names every American knows. Pull out your wallet and you’ll likely see at least one of their faces on the money you carry aroundAnd while this nation was founded on principles rooted in Christianity, none of these men were Catholic. In fact, of the men history calls the Founding Fathers of America, only two were. 

Many may already be familiar with Founding Father Charles Carroll, a Catholic and signer of the Declaration of Independence, and whose brother John was the first Catholic bishop assigned to what would become the United States. However, Carroll was not the only Catholic who played a role in the founding of our country. The other was Thomas Fitzsimons, a name that is not mentioned much (if at all) in U.S. history classes but deserves to be recognized nonetheless.  

The unwieldy named Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, published in 1887, paints a vivid picture of Fitzsimons and the way his faith informed his character. While the other Founding Fathers were meeting and deliberating about the Declaration of Independence, Fitzsimons joined the Continental Army anfought on the frontlines against the British army. 

Captain Fitzsimons commanded his company of militia until 1778, when France entered the war. British troops withdrew from Pennsylvania and began to focus on the southern states. It was at this time that Fitzsimons became more involved in politics at the state level. In 1782, he became a delegate at the Continental Congress. In 1786, he was elected as a Pennsylvania state legislator and served for three terms until 1789. In 1787, he was selected to represent Pennsylvania at the Constitutional Congress, where the United States Constitution was written and ratified. He, along with Daniel Carroll, were the only two Catholics to sign to Constitution. 

Born in Belfast, Ireland in 1741, not much else is known about Fitzsimons’ family. He had three brothers – Nicholas, Andrew and John – and one sister, Ann. He and his family immigrated to America as early as 1760, where they became residents of Philadelphia. It was here that Fitzsimons would stake his claim as a businessman and politician. 

In 1763, Fitzsimons married Catharine Meade, whose brother, George Meade, would later go into business with Fitzsimons and build one of the most successful commercial trade houses in Philadelphia. Throughout his life, Fitzsimons was in close correspondence with Bishop John Carrollthese letters revealed insights into the Catholic Founding Father’s personal life. In a letter to Bishop Carroll in 1808, Fitzsimons wrote of being married to Catharine for 45 years. Additionally, local baptismal records show that he and Catharine stood as sponsors at the baptisms of three of Meade’s children. 

In 1774, Fitzsimons began his first foray into politics when he was elected as one of 13 Provincial Deputies who were given authority to call a general meeting of the citizens. It is believed he was the first Catholic to have ever held public office in the budding United States. Even so, anti-Catholic bigotry was common at the time and did exist within some of his fellow statesmen, such as John Adams, who once said in an address to the people of Great Britain that the Catholic faith was “a religion that has deluged your island in blood and dispersed impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder and rebellion through every part of the world.” 

Fitzsimons’ first stint in public office was brief, only lasting from May to July, but it was a foreshadowing his future involvement in state affairs. As the Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, Fitzsimons formed a company of soldiers to fight against the British army. He was assigned to the Third Battalion under Col. Cadwalader and Lieut. Col. John Nixon, who was the grandson of a Catholic. Behind the scenes, as George Washington and the like organized committees and framed what would become the Declaration of Independence, Fitzsimons ascended to the rank of Captain and continued to serve his country as a soldier and patriot.

In addition to his tenure as a commanding officer and politician, Fitzsimons also found success in other ventures. In 1781, he helped found the Bank of North America, the United States’ first de facto central bank, and served as its director until 1803. The latter years of his life were spent primarily in private business, but he maintained a consistent interest in public affairs; even Fitzsimons wasn’t exempt from the old adage, “once a politician, always a politician.” 

Through all of these endeavors, and even after befalling troubled financial times in the early 1800s, Fitzsimons remained a diligent philanthropist. He gave immense support to St. Augustine’s Catholic Church in Philadelphia and was invested in the improvement of public education in the commonwealth. As one of his contemporaries wrote after his death in 1811, “he died in the esteem, affection and gratitude of all classes of his fellow citizens.” 

Fitzsimons was buried in the graveyard of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Philadelphia, which is now part of Independence National Historical Park. His name may not be a household one like Washington or Jefferson, but Fitzsimons can be remembered as something of an unsung Founding Father of the United Statesa man whose life of quiet faith, humble service and admirable patriotism exemplifies the values that this country was founded upon in a simple yet profound way.