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: Historical clarity and today’s Catholic contentions

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One of the curiosities of the 21st-century Catholic debate is that many Catholic traditionalists (especially integralists) and a high percentage of Catholic progressives make the same mistake in analyzing the cause of today’s contentions within the Church — or to vary the old fallacy taught in Logic 101, they think in terms of post Concilium ergo propter Concilium [everything that’s happened after the Council has happened because of the Council]. And inside that fallacy is a common misreading of modern Catholic history. The traditionalists insist that everything was fine before the Council (which many of them therefore regard as a terrible mistake); the progressives agree that the pre-Vatican II Church was a stable institution but deplore that stability as rigidity and desiccation.

But that’s not the way things were pre-Vatican II, as I explain at some length and with some engaging stories in my new book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform (Basic Books). And no one knew the truth about pre-Vatican II Catholicism better than the man who was elected pope during the Council and guided Vatican II through its last three sessions, St. Paul VI.

On January 25, 1959, Pope John XXIII, thought to be an elderly placeholder, stunned both the Church and the world by announcing his intention to summon the 21st ecumenical council. That night, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini (who would be known as Paul VI four and a half years later), called an old friend. An experienced churchman who had long served Pius XII as chief of staff, Montini saw storm clouds on the horizon: “This holy old boy,” he said of John XXIII, “doesn’t know what a hornet’s nest he’s stirring up.”

That shrewd observation turned out to be spot on –– and not simply because of the Council, but because of the bees and hornets that had been buzzing around the ecclesiastical nest for well over 100 years.

Contrary to both traditionalist and progressive misconceptions, Catholicism was not a placid institution, free of controversy and contention, prior to Vatican II. As I show in The Irony of Modern Catholic History, there was considerable intellectual ferment in the Church during the mid-19th century, involving great figures like the recently-canonized John Henry Newman, the German bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler (grandfather of modern Catholic social thought), and the Italian polymath Antonio Rosmini (praised by John Paul II in the 1999 encyclical, Faith and Reason, and beatified under Benedict XVI). That ferment accelerated during the 25 year pontificate of Leo XIII, who launched what I dub the “Leonine Revolution,” challenging the Church to engage the modern world with distinctively Catholic tools in order to convert the modern world and lay a firmer foundation for its aspirations.

American Catholicism, heavily focused on institution-building, was largely unaware of the sharp-edged controversies (and ecclesiastical elbow-throwing) that followed Leo XIII’s death in 1903. Those controversies, plus the civilization-shattering experience of two world wars in Europe, plus a rapid secularization process in Old Europe that began in the 19th century, set the stage for John XXIII’s epic opening address to Vatican II. There, the Pope explained what he envisioned Vatican II doing: gathering up the energies let loose by the Leonine Revolution and focusing them through the prism of an ecumenical council, which he hoped would be a Pentecostal experience energizing the Church with new evangelical zeal.

John XXIII understood that the Gospel proposal could only be made by speaking to the modern world in a vocabulary the modern world could hear. Finding the appropriate grammar and vocabulary for contemporary evangelization didn’t mean emptying Catholicism of its content or challenge, however. As the Pope insisted, the perennial truths of the faith were to be expressed with the “same meaning” and the “same judgment.” Vatican II, in other words, was to foster the development of doctrine, not the deconstruction of doctrine. And the point of that doctrinal development was to equip the Church for mission and evangelization, for the modern world would be converted by truth, not ambiguity or confusion.

Over the past six and a half years, it’s become abundantly clear that more than a few Catholics, some quite prominently placed, still don’t get this history. Nor do the more vociferous elements in the Catholic blogosphere. Which is why I hope The Irony of Modern Catholic History helps facilitate a more thoughtful debate on the Catholic present and future, through a better understanding of the Catholic past.