Son of Sligo, Father Francis Douglas was tortured by the Japanese, but refused to break the Seal of Confession, writes Con McGrath in his Role of the Irish in WWII Series

In July of 1943, a force of Japanese soldiers operating in The Philippians, moved their prisoner to an awaiting truck. The unfortunate prisoner was an Irish – New Zealander. A man working as a missionary Priest in the Philippines, who had just endured three days of terrible torture. All because he was unwilling to divulge confidences or to break the seal of the confessional.

Unable ‘to break’ their prisoner, the occupying Japanese forces were now taking him away on a journey. When that truck dove away – that was the last that was ever seen of Father Frank Douglas.

Francis Vernon Douglas was born on the 22nd of May 1910, in Johnsonville, near Wellington, the capital of New Zealand.

Vernon, as he was generally known, was the fifth of eight children (five sons and three daughters) of Kathleen Gaffney and her husband, George Charles Douglas.
George was an Australian-born railway worker; while Kathleen was a devout Catholic from Co. Sligo.

Vernon was brought up in a close, lively, working-class family. Both parents enjoyed music. George had a vegetable garden and kept hens and a goat to help feed the family. Kathleen campaigned actively for the rights of mothers and poor families. (In 1926, when Vernon was still a teenager, his father became a Catholic.)

Tall, robust, dark-haired, sport-loving, strong-minded, a good singer and possessing a fine sense of social and religious duty, the future Father Douglas exhibited various attractive family traits.

Except for two years at the Marist Brothers’ School, Thorndon, in 1921 and 1922, he received all his schooling at Johnsonville School. One of his teachers recalled him as “a good kid but tough and untidy”. He finished school aged 14 in 1924, and in 1925 began work with the Post and Telegraph Department as a messenger boy. There he remained until February 1927, when he entered Holy Cross College at Mosgiel to study for the priesthood. The seminary regime was strict and austere, but he appears to have thrived; the rector, C. J. Morkane, later described him as an exemplary student.

Douglas was ordained priest at St Joseph’s Church, Buckle Street, Wellington, on 29 October 1934 by Archbishop Thomas O’Shea. 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, Sydney.

Following ordination, Douglas worked as a curate in the parishes of Johnsonville, Opunake and New Plymouth, but his aspirations lay elsewhere. Since 1933, when two of its priests had visited New Zealand and an open letter appealing for recruits had been distributed, Douglas had felt drawn to St Columban’s Foreign Mission Society, named in honour of the renowned Irish Missionary, St. Columbanus.

Commonly known as the Columbans, it was also known as the Maynooth Mission to China. This congregation, which publicised its work through a popular magazine, ‘The Far East’, had been formally founded in 1918 by Fr. Edward Galvin of Newcestown, Co. Cork, and Fr. John Blowick of Belcarra, Co. Mayo. (Fr. Galvin later became the first Bishop of Hanyang, in China.)

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