Francis Vernon Douglas was born in Johnsonville, near Wellington, on 22 May 1910, the fifth of eight children (five sons and three daughters) of Kathleen Gaffney and her husband, George Charles Douglas, an Australian-born railway worker. His mother was a devout Catholic from County Sligo, Ireland, and his father became a Catholic in 1926. Vernon, as he was generally known, 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. Tall, robust, dark-haired, sport-loving, strong-minded, a good singer and possessing a fine sense of social and religious duty, 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 at 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, Ōpunake 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. This congregation, which also publicised its work through a popular magazine, The Far East, had been founded in Ireland in 1916 to evangelise China. In 1936 Douglas went to Australia to join the Columbans, and to train for a year at their seminary in Melbourne. Three other New Zealanders had joined the congregation in Ireland in 1935.
As a result of the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 the Columbans began posting missionaries elsewhere in Asia. Late in 1938 Douglas was appointed to Pililla, a fishing town near Manila in the Philippines. Conditions were harsh, and he struggled to combat religious indifference among his parishioners, for the most part nominal Catholics. His difficulties increased after the Japanese occupied Manila in January 1942. The Japanese were at first half-heartedly tolerant of the expatriate Christian missionaries who stayed at their posts, but they became less forbearing after the Allied counter-attack on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands in August 1942.
Douglas reluctantly obeyed the restrictive rules imposed by the Japanese until July 1943, when he felt obliged to visit some American guerrillas in the nearby mountains who claimed to need his priestly services. To his fury he discovered that they in fact merely wanted fresh company; he had been a victim of what proved to be a tragic hoax. The trip aroused suspicions that he was spying for the resistance forces, and on 24 July 1943 Japanese soldiers took Douglas from Pililla to Paete to interrogate him. Unwilling to divulge confidences or to break the seal of the confessional, he refused to answer questions. For three days he was tortured and beaten, then on 27 July he was taken away. He was never seen again. A Captain Shikioka subsequently charged with mistreating Douglas was never apprehended.
The story of Vernon Douglas has entered into the traditions of New Zealand Catholicism. He is honoured for his steadfast devotion to his religious duties, and stands with Mother Mary Joseph Aubert and Emmet McHardy as one of the local church’s three great inspirational models. In 1959 his name was commemorated in a new boys’ secondary school at New Plymouth, Francis Douglas Memorial College.