by VERNE TURNER & VERNON DOUGLAS
Fr Vernon Douglas was a much loved member of the Douglas family from Johnsonville in Wellington. Vernon’s faith was deeply felt, leading him to commit his life to the Church. He eventually found his place as a Columban missionary in the Philippines during the Second World War, while the islands were occupied by the Japanese.
In 1943, Japanese soldiers believed the local guerillas had shared valuable information with Fr Vernon, and tortured him in an attempt to force him to tell them what he knew. Fr Vernon would not talk and, for that, he was tortured and finally killed.
Fr Vernon has remained a strong presence in our family, [Verne and Vernon are named in his memory] and his story has been well recorded in New Zealand Catholic
history. However, amongst the chaos at the end of the war, his story had been forgotten in the Philippines until the Columbans recently rediscovered their records of Fr Vernon’s work, and his sacrifice.
Reflecting on the great suffering Fr Vernon endured at the hands of the Japanese and his ultimate death for his faith, the Columbans decided to make a pilgrimage to the parish at Pililla in the district of Rizal, where Fr Vernon spent most of his time, and to the church of Paete where he was tortured. We learnt of the Columbans’ planned pilgrimage from Wellington priest Fr Kevin Purcell, and four members of our family were fortunate enough to be able to take the journey to the Philippines for this very special event.
Our group comprised of Vernon Douglas, his son Brendan, Verne Turner and her husband Cliff. [Vernon Douglas is a nephew of Fr Vernon Douglas, and Verne is a niece of Fr Vernon Douglas].
We began our journey spending an enjoyable week with the Columbans at their house in Manila, in an area near to the Malate parish where our uncle travelled frequently for recreation and support. Staying with the Colombans gave us a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the order’s work in the Philippines and the sort of environment Fr Vernon would have experienced at that time.
On the morning of the pilgrimage, we were among 70 people who set off at 6am on September 28 in torrential rain for the three-hour journey to Fr Vernon’s parish of
St Mary Magdalene in Pililla, sharing prayers together along the way.
It was an incredibly moving moment when we stepped off the bus, knowing that this was where Fr Vernon had worked and lived for nearly five years.
To see the beautiful 430-year-old Spanish church and the loving Christian community thriving in the parish there confirmed to us that the work started by our uncle over 70 years ago continues today. Entering the church, we felt Fr Vernon’s presence so strongly, it was truly wonderful. We were able to see the baptistery register with his hand written entries, which made the knowledge that he had been there so very real.
A short prayer service was held in the church in memory of Fr Vernon. While praying the rosary, [nephew] Vernon was quite overcome by the experience as he held the rosary beads his father had given him many years before, and he remembered how his father had told him to always think of those from the family who had died when he used them.
After the service we moved upstairs and stood in the large room attached to the church where Fr Vernon had lived and from which he was abducted by the Japanese.
We were told that when Fr Vernon had first arrived the roof had caved in and required repair, and that he had shared the room with a local family, separated only by a curtain.
It was a joy to be there, to try and imagine what life in the Philippines might have been like for him. But, it was also painful to remember that it was here that he was first questioned by the Japanese soldiers who had seen him going into the surrounding hills.
They had suspected him of collaborating and spying for the guerrillas. When asked about information that he had been given in Confession, witnesses heard him respond: “That is a question that you have no right to ask and one that I cannot answer.” The Japanese soldiers dragged him downstairs and threw him in a truck to take him to Paete, a journey of about five hours at that time.
We were loathe to leave the place that had been Fr Vernon’s home, but the pilgrimage continued to Paete. As we sat in the air-conditioned bus on sealed roads to Paete we tried to imagine what it must have been like for Fr Vernon, travelling in a truck surrounded by Japanese soldiers having no idea where he was going or what was going to happen to him. For a young man of 33 years from a far off country it must have been incredibly frightening.
We were greeted in Paete by members of the local parish who provided us with a traditional lunch, which we all appreciated. During lunch we were introduced to two elderly women, Dominga Dayocot and Aurelia Cadapan, who had both seen Fr Vernon tied to the pillar in the church at Paete, when they had been allowed into the church to bring food to their fathers and uncles. Mrs Cadapan, 88, died on October 24. In September, she had spoken to us in very clear English and with a strong voice gave a full and vivid account of what she saw in the church in 1943. When she saw Fr Vernon, she was 15 years old. Her family later said she was so happy in the last weeks of her life that the pilgrimage had taken place and she had had the opportunity to relate what she had experienced.
During the war, Japanese soldiers had turned the Paete church into a concentration camp and were holding up to 250 suspected informers and guerrillas as prisoners at the time. The prisoners were tortured for information in the sacristy and it was here that Fr Vernon was brought and given the dreaded water cure — still he refused to utter a word. He was tied to the baptismal font in the baptistery and was later manacled to a pillar at the back of the church where, after being severely beaten, he was left to stand for two days and two nights. After Fr Vernon had been tortured and eventually dragged from the church, close to death, all the other prisoners in the church were set free. Fr Vernon was never seen again. We were deeply moved to see this church, to touch the pillar where he was tied and try to imagine the fear and pain he must have experienced.
At the church, a sung Mass was concelebrated by the Columbans, led by Fr John Keenan. The local school and parishioners joined the pilgrims in giving thanks for the life of Fr Vernon. It was such a wonderful occasion and we felt the joy of Fr Vernon’s spirit present with us. This church was often talked about in our families and especially in our childhoods. We had heard the story of our uncle’s torture and death, but to actually go to the church and see the places in real life was very moving.
The pilgrimage was a journey of a lifetime.
Following in our uncle’s footsteps, to see where he had prayed, slept, lived and ultimately died was truly overwhelming — one we feel so very privileged to have been able to make.