Rev Francis Vernon Douglas SSC
Francis Vernon Douglas was born on May 22, 1910, in Johnsonville, Wellington, New Zealand, to George Charles and Kathleen (née Gaffney) Douglas. He was the fifth of eight children (five sons and three daughters). His father was an Australian-born railway worker, who was a protestant. His father became a Catholic in 1926 and his mother was a devout Catholic from County Sligo, Ireland. He was known as "Vernon" to his family. In his youth, he excelled at rugby and cricket.
In 1824, Vernon completed his education at the Marist Brothers School, in Wellington, at the age of 14, and in 1925, he began work with the Post and Telegraph Department as a messenger boy. He subsequently went on to the National Seminary at Holy Cross College, in Mosgiel, to study for the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Wellington. He was ordained to the sacred priesthood at Wellington on October 29, 1934, at Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church, in Wellington, by Archbishop Thomas O’Shea. He served in the parishes of Johnsonville, Opunake and New Plymouth. His eldest brother had already entered religious life by joining the Marist Brothers, and an elder sister was a nun at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Rose Bay, in Sydney.
In 1933, two Columban priests had visited New Zealand and appealed for recruits to missionary work with their society. Father Frank had felt drawn to their society, popularly known as the Columbans, and applied soon after his ordaination. In 1937, he entered the Missionary Society of Saint Columban, at Saint Columban’s, in Essendon. In July of 1939, he was assigned to the Philippines, where he served at Saint Mary Magdalene Catholic Church, in Pililla. He struggled with the Tagalog language and tried to remain neutral between the kempeitai, the Japanese military police, and the Filipino-American guerrillas hiding in the hills around Pililla.
On July 25, 1943, in the Municipality of Paete, Laguna, the people were eagerly looking forward to their annual fiesta in honor of Saint James the Apostle. However, the peace and tranquility of the town, crowded with visitors, was abruptly interrupted when the Japanese Imperial Army decided to zone off the area. It was cordoned off and no one was allowed to leave. Every males from fourteen upwards were rounded up and incarcerated in the centuries-old parish church, Saint James James the Greater Catholic Church, famous for its beautiful woodcarvings and paintings. The Japanese were seeking out guerrillas and their collaborators who were carrying on a resistance in the woods of nearby hills. For several days, some 250 men were interrogated and tortured, deprived of sleep and mercilessly beaten until they gave information or died.
A day before the fiesta, Japanese soldiers arrived in a truck with a tall, unknown Caucasian in custody dressed in a white cassock. He was tied to a lamppost and made to endure the hot tropical sun throughout the day. No one knew who he was, or where he came from. He was in fact, Father Frank, the parish priest of Pililla, Rizal, some 50 kms away. Hours earlier he had been abducted from his convento and taken over the mountains to Paete.
Meanwhile in Paete, the local chief of police, Basilio y Agbay, told one of his captors that the Caucasian man was a priest, but the Japanese soldier replied, "That man is a spy." Exhausted after a day under the sun, Fr Frank was taken inside the church, by now a torrid dungeon. He was first taken to the sacristy where the terrorized peopled could hear moans as he was being tortured. Later, he was dragged to the baptistery where he was tied to the baptismal font, and again severely beaten until blood splashed on the surroundings and waterboarded. Stripped to the waist, clad only in white slacks with his torso and arms black and blue, oozing with blood, he was tied to the left post under the choir loft. All the torture and pain seemed to be concentrated on him while the 250 frightened men looked on. His bleeding and battered body immediately reminded the people of the scourging of Jesus at the pillar.
For three days and three nights, he was forced to stand. One of the soldiers hit him on the forehead with the butt of his sword and immediately blood gushed out all over his face. The others were allowed to lie down and sleep. Throughout all this he uttered not a word. Instead, he kept his eyes on the altar and continued to recite the Rosary. A bowl of rice was placed at his feet, which he did not touch. His bloodstained cassock lay on the floor beside him. Finally, perhaps fearing that his end was near, he asked for the local parish priest to hear his confession. He was attended to by a Filipino priest. This was done in the presence of his torturers, lest they later force the confessor to break the seal of confession. Shortly afterwards, he was last seen alive, bloodied and bruised, very weak but still conscious, being bundled into a truck that sped away in the direction of Santa Cruz and Los Baños.
It is believed the Rev Douglas died in the evening of July 27, 1943, in Longos, Laguna, Philippines, as a result of the torture he endured in Paete. His body was never found.
It was only after the liberation of the Philippines from Japanese occupation, at the end of 1944, that the Columbans could start to piece his story together. What emerged was a picture of a 33 year old priest, who could be regarded as a martyr, having demonstrated outstanding priestly fidelity, especially to the Seal of Confession. Official information gathered in 1945 was verified by witnesses in 1995, who were present in the church with Fr Frank during the interrogation in 1943.
Francis Douglas Memorial College, an all-boys state integrated Catholic secondary school, in Westown, New Plymouth, New Zealand, was named in his honor.
The Mt Maunganui RSA honored Father Douglas as a civilian war hero by installing a memorial seat, in his name, at the beginning of Marine Parade, near the base of the Mount Maunganui. The seat was placed where the photograph of Fr Douglas that is on the cover of his biography, With NO Regrets: the Story of Francis Vernon Douglas, was taken in 1937. At the instigation of the late Richard Beveridge, the Mt Maunganui RSA also sponsored a reprint of Fr Douglas' biography.
The Vatican’s Congregation For the Causes of Saints is investigating the cause for beatification of Rev Francis Vernon Douglas, due to his heroic death.
His cenotaph memorial in Omaha, Nebraska is located at the Columban Martyrs Memorial Garden.