In July 2013, Columbans marked the 70th anniversary of the heroic death of a colleague, Columban Father Frank Douglas, who is now honored in the New Zealand Catholic Church as an inspirational missionary figure. Francis Vernon Douglas was born in Wellington on May 22, 1910, into a close, lively, Catholic working-class family in the suburb of Johnsonville. Leaving school at 14, he worked in the post office as a messenger boy. From his youth he was tall, robust, dark-haired and sports-loving. Friends spoke of him as strong-minded, with a fine sense of social and religious duty.
In 1927, he entered the national seminary at Mosgiel, trained for the diocesan priesthood, and was ordained in 1934 for the Archdiocese of Wellington. In 1937, as an energetic and extroverted young priest, he volunteered to join St. Columban’s Mission Society. His bishop graciously acknowledged the idealism and leadership qualities suited for overseas mission.
Fr. Frank was assigned to the Philippines, to Pililla, a lakeside township beyond Manila. It was not an easy assignment. He made the most of every opportunity, especially in learning the language, and in coming to terms with the culture and unfamiliar customs. The people were poor, and, because of religious indifference, the number attending church was small. Life became more diffi cult when the Japanese military invaded the Philippines in December 1941. The invading soldiers were intent on containing local resistance, so they kept a close eye on Fr. Frank, with a suspicion that he was a foreign spy. He was finally arrested in late July 1943 and taken to the neighboring town of Paete.
Along with others, he was interrogated, deprived of sleep and tortured. Through the whole ordeal, tied to a pillar in the church, he remained silent. After three days, bloodied and bruised, he was bundled away on a truck. It is believed that he died as a result of the beating. But he was never seen again, and his body was never found.
The suffering of Fr. Frank made a deep impression on the town. Here was a strong and brave man who withstood days and nights of horrific punishment. He suffered in silence, not betraying the trust of others. Filipinos spoke of him as a Christ-like figure. When anger was centered on him, others were spared. Beaten and ill-treated, he was a kind of savior.
After the war, reports of his heroic death reached his homeland, New Zealand. The challenging aspects of his dedicated life and heroic death became known, and are remembered still. To honor his memory, Columbans in New Zealand have commissioned a carved memorial stone to be presented to the Archbishop for the Cathedral in Wellington.