27 July 2009

A martyr for the seal of confession?

Today is the anniversary of the death of a remarkable Columban missionary, Fr Francis Vernon Douglas, a New Zealander who was killed by the Japanese in the Philippines in 1943, quite possibly because he refused to break the seal of confession.

You can read an excellent synopsis of his life from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography here. This doesn’t mention the detail that he was tied to one of the pillars of the church in Paete, where nobody knew him, and scourged there, just like Jesus.

I came across the account below by Fr John Keenan, an Irish Columban based in Manila, on The Bataan Banner. Many Columbans have died violently but I don’t know of any whose martyrdom – and I think that that is the correct term – resembled so much the sufferings of Jesus himself.

Our Holy Father in proclaiming the Year for Priests, has highlighted the part that hearing confessions played in the life of St John Vianney. Father Frank Douglas was, it seems, a martyr for that sacrament.
I have highlighted some parts of Father Keenan's article.

Church of St James the Apostle, Paete, Laguna, where Father Douglas was scourged.


by Father John Keenan

As one century and a new millennium begins, Pope John Paul II is anxious that the lives and deaths of those who suffered and died heroically in the service of others be recorded and documented. The sufferings and death of Fr Francis Vernon Douglas at the hands of the Japanese Military Police in World War II is one story that must not be forgotten. He was tortured and is thought to have died near Paete, Laguna, in July, 1943. Reprinted from Columban Reader, March 2000.

Paete is a quiet country town nestled between the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountains and Laguna de Bay, about 70 miles from Manila. Founded as a Christian settlement around 1580, its inhabitants are famous for their wood-carving skills.

As usual, the people were eagerly looking forward to their annual fiesta in honor of St James, the Apostle, on July 25, 1943. 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. All males from fourteen upwards were rounded up and incarcerated in the centuries-old parish church, famous for its beautiful wood carvings and paintings.

The Japanese were seeking out guerrillas and their collaborators who were carrying on resistance in the woods of the nearby hills. For several days, more than 250 men were interrogated and tortured, deprived of sleep and mercilessly beaten until they gave information or died.

On July 24th, Japanese soldiers arrived in a truck with a tall, unknown Caucasian—dressed in a white cassock—in custody. He was tied to a lamp post 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, Fr Francis Vernon Douglas, parish priest of Pililla, some 20 miles away. Hours earlier he had been abducted from his convento and taken over the mountains to Paete.

Frank, or Vernon (to his friends), was born in Johnsonville, Wellington, New Zealand, on May 22, 1910. In his youth he excelled at rugby and cricket, and later studied for the priesthood. He was ordained on October 29, 1934. After an enjoyable and successful year as a curate in New Plymouth, NZ, he felt that God wanted him to become a missionary. He joined the Society of St Columban and arrived in Manila in 1938. His first assignment was as parish priest of Pililla, where he struggled with Tagalog language and tried to remain neutral between the Kem-pei-tai, Japanese military police, and the Filipino-American guerrillas hiding in the hills around Pililla.

In Paete, the local chief of Police, Basilio Y. Agbay, told one of his captors that the man was a priest, but he replied, 'the man is a spy'. Exhausted after a day in the sun, he was taken inside the church, by now a torrid dungeon. He was first taken to the sacristy where the terrorized people could hear the 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 font and surroundings. Stripped to the waist, clad only in white slacks with his torso and arms black and blue and oozing with blood, he was tied to the left post under the choir loft. All the torture and pain seemed concentrated on him while the 250 looked on.

His bleeding and battered body immediately reminded the religious Filipinos of the scourging of Jesus at the pillar. 'Yet ours were the sufferings he endured… He was harshly treated, but unresisting and silent, and he humbly submitted…' (Isaiah 53:4-7). 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 blood-stained 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. This was done in the presence of his torturers, lest they later force his confessor to break the seal of confession. Shortly afterwards, bloodied and bruised, he was bundled into a truck that sped away in the direction of Santa Cruz and Los Baños, where there were many prisoners of war, including priests and religious. He was never seen again.

Why was Vernon singled out for such horrible torture? Did he refuse to talk in order to preserve the seal of confession, or information held in confidence? As he was being interrogated in Pillila before being abducted, neighbors heard him remonstrate with the military police, 'You have no right to ask me that question, and I cannot, in conscience, answer it'. Whatever the reason, one thing is certain, here was a strong man who suffered in silence rather than betray his friends.

As an early report published in The Far East, December 1945 stated: 'What Father Douglas suffered in Paete made a deep impression on the people of that town. The Filipinos say that he seemed to be like our Lord Himself, as he stood there, tied to the post in the Church, constantly beaten and ill-treated, but always with unquestionable patience. They expressed the belief that he suffered made him a kind of savior to the town.

'From the time he was brought there, no Filipino received any ill treatment. On him were concentrated all the anger and hatred of the Japanese soldiers.'


In 1998 the Columbans published a biography of Father Douglas, With No Regrets, written by Patricia Brooks.

I have comes across a reference to a video on the life of Father Douglas but can’t locate it at present.

Francis Douglas Memorial College, a school in New Zealand run by the De La Salle Brothers, is named after this brave priest.


Conrad said...


I appreciate that you share this beautiful story of martyrdom. I heard this story of Fr. Vernon, in fact, I've seen the docu-drama entitled ''the Epitaph" when I was in high school. I've also heard the book "With no regrets" by Patricia Brooks, but I haven't read it since I don't have a copy of that book. If you know something about where can I find the book and the docu-drama please let me know. By the way, I'm a Filipino and I was born and raised in Paete, Laguna.

Thank you

Ang Kwaderno ni Sir said...

I admire Columban Priest who offer their life and being Christ. I felt sad that this man suffered a lot but he continue his ministry. I pray for the soul of Fr. Vernon and all the Columban Priests who gives their life and time to Filipino people.