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Few gestures are more grand than gifting a 350 pound brick of the world’s finest silver. In 1870,  Pope Pius IX received a brick of Grade-A pure silver that took eight soldiers to lift and carry into the Vatican. The gift was bestowed upon Pope Pius IX by Denis J. Oliver of San Francisco, the brother of my 3x great-grandfather John Bartholomew Oliver, to show his adoration and devout faith to the Catholic Church. At the time, the brick of silver was valued at 1000 pounds and was 98% pure silver.

This stunning gift was not by any means a random act of kindness. Oliver’s present, along with others, came at a time when Pope Pius IX and the Papal authority were in a state of crisis. According to the article, these presents were received with “the intention of…assisting him to meet the extraordinary circumstances to which it has given rise, or of sustaining him against his enemies, the enemies of order and religion.” [1]


Pope Pius IX (1792-1878), born Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferreti. He was the first Pope to be photographed. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Who are these enemies that are being referred to? It takes knowing some Italian history to understand the full context. When the pontificate of Pope Pius IX came to being in 1846, the country of Italy was controlled in large part by the Papal States, a set of provinces in the middle of Italy that were under sovereign rule of the Pope. However the sentiments of Italian citizens begin to change during Pope Pius XI’s reign. Nationalist movements swept all over Europe, dissolving long standing monarchies and Italy would experience much inner conflict and revolution during the pope’s reign. At times, the Pope was forced to leave Rome for his safety. When Denis J. Oliver’s gift was received by the Vatican, the Italian nationalists were gaining ground and several months later, the city of Rome fell to the Italian Army on 29 Sep 1870. [2] Perhaps Denis J. Oliver’s efforts to raise money for the Papal authority and military fell short, but would ultimately receive great admiration from Pope Pius XI. When four new bishops were canonized at the Vatican in 1881, Oliver was present wearing the Order of Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Gregory the Great. [3]

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Source: Findmypast.com

The article was extracted from a letter by Mr J.F. Maguire, MP, published originally in the Cork Examiner. Many newspapers throughout Ireland and the United States reprinted this article. Once again the Oliver family managed to make international headlines. The article describes Oliver as an Irishman from Galway, who left for New York at the age of seventeen, and after working hard at business in New York City for several years, was “induced to try the new region opened up to hope and industry.” This region of hope and industry was specifically California and while others “toiled and sickened, or died in search of gold,” Denis J. Oliver rose to amass great wealth after “twenty years of honorable industry.” [4] 

By any standards, this is no small gesture and one can only imagine having such a gift bestowed upon them. It was a great risk to send the 350 pound brick of silver 8000 miles from San Francisco to Rome. Whether it made the journey entirely by ship or partially by land through continental Europe is not clear. Regardless of the risk in sending such a valuable item, where an array of possible disasters could have sabotaged the present, Denis Oliver remained firm and convicted in his duty to protect the interests of his church.

  1. “Presents to the Pope.” Dublin Evening Mail (Dublin, Ireland), 12 Jan 1870, p.4: accessed at findmypast.com

2.“Papal States under Pope Pius IX.” Wikipedia: accessed at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papal_States_under_Pope_Pius_IX

3. “The Late Canonization in Rome.” The Freeman’s Journal (Dublin, Ireland), 13 Dec 1881, p.7: accessed at findmypast.com

4. “Presents to the Pope.” Dublin Evening Mail.

Copyright (c) 2016 Jake Fletcher.

Jake Fletcher. “Denis J. Oliver’s Gift to Pope Pius IX.” Travelogues of a Genealogist, posted 27 Mar 2016. https://fletcherfamilytree.wordpress.com/2016/03/27/denis-j-olivers-gift-to-pope-pius-xi