The article below entitled A Glorious Death is taken from the book Epitaph II which was published to accompany the TV series of the same name. The chapter on Father Douglas was written by Graeme Lay.
Francis Douglas Memorial College opened in 1959 under the leadership of the De La Salle Brothers and is dedicated to the memory of Fr Francis Vernon Douglas. The De La Salle Brothers, a Catholic chaplain and their lay partners form a dedicated community with the parents in sharing a common mission of providing Christian education for Taranaki boys.
Father Francis Douglas. It was to honour the memory of this man that this college was so named. How he died is uncertain. Where he died is unknown. Why he died has never been established. For that matter it has never been established that he did, in fact, die. But since that day in 1943 when the Japanese led him away, no one was ever to see or hear from Columban Father Francis Vernon Douglas again. Vernon believed in taking time before making important decisions. After graduating from high school, he worked in the Post Office of his hometown in Thorndon, New Zealand, for a year before making any plans about the future. He wanted time to think things out, investigate all the options before choosing one. When he did decide - it was the Priesthood.
In 1934 he was ordained for the Archdiocese of Wellington. Even then he felt a pull to the missions - but spent the next three years in New Plymouth as assistant priest. But he knew "something greater" was still before him.
Part of that "something greater" he found in the Columban Fathers. In 1937 he joined them and following a year of training and missionary formation in Australia, went to the Philippines.
The first months in his new ministry were spent learning the language and customs of the Philippine people. In 1939 he was appointed pastor of Pililla, a town of 10,000 on the island of Luzon. Rumours of war spreading to countries of the Far East were beginning even then. "War or no war, I'll stick it out here," Fr. Douglas wrote home in 1940. Pililla was his mission...he'd remain.
The people were poor, their faith even more so. It was a small, struggling town when Father Francis Douglas arrived - with a half-ruined church, a dilapidated presbytery and a mere handful of practicing Catholics. His work was clearly cut out for him and it wasn't going to be easy.
Fr. Douglas began with the youth. “They're the future of the Church here, and they also seem the best avenue to reaching other people," he said. Within a few months he organized a troop of Boy Scouts and began working with the older youths of Pililla organising recreational activities and a social action committee.
Before long, his labours began to bear fruits. The Church was repaired, the presbytery made habitable and faith was gradually coming back to the people. "Think I've made a sound start-but still so much to be done...." he wrote again in 1940.
Much did remain to be done - but Fr. Douglas was not the man who would do it. The Japanese invaded the Philippines shortly after Pearl Harbor was bombed in December, 1941. Although he had ample time to escape, he stuck to his earlier decision. For him, leaving his people in such a time of need would have been self-defeating. "They have nowhere else to go- nor do I," he wrote.
For two years, Fr. Douglas lived the precarious existence of those who will not collaborate and cannot revolt. As a Priest and foreigner, he was suspect by the Japanese in his every move. Often he was taken in for questioning, held for hours and accused of being a spy against the Japanese. But he knew nothing to satisfy their intensive interrogations. He was simply a Priest, a missionary doing his job in an occupied country of anything else about the war he was ignorant.
On June 25, 1943, Fr. Douglas was arrested by Japanese soldiers, who were trying to stamp out guerrilla activity in the mountains near Pililla. He was taken to a Church in the neighbouring town of Paete and beaten and then tied to a pillar in the baptistry for three days. At one point during his confinement, Fr. Douglas was subjected to the "water torture." A large funnel was inserted in his mouth and water poured through until his stomach became hideously bloated. A wooden slab was then placed across his middle which the soldiers jumped on.
According to one report, the Japanese suspected Fr. Douglas had been hearing the confessions of resistance guerrilla fighters who hid out in the surrounding hills. Through means of the "water torture," they attempted to make him reveal the guerrilla's whereabouts and any pertinent information confided in the confessional. Whether or not he was aware of the guerrillas, Fr. Douglas remained silent through the whole ordeal. At his request he was allowed to make his confession to a native Filipino Priest in the presence of a Japanese interpreter. The Priest later recounted the physical appearance of Fr. Frank at the time. "His face was bloody, one eye was blackened and swollen and his arms were covered with infected cuts and sores."
At the end of the third day, as darkness was coming on, the Japanese took Fr. Frank from the Church and dragged him to a military truck surrounded by soldiers with fixed bayonets. The truck drove away from Paete towards Santa Cruz. When it returned later that night, Japanese soldiers were its only occupants. Fr. Douglas’ "something greater" was completed somehow, somewhere in the time between. His body was never found.