A Pilgrimage for Fr. Vernon’s 75th Death Anniversary
By Mary Joy Rile
Fr. Vernon Douglas: A sketch by Gigi Arevalo, July 2018
The Columban priests, sisters, lay missionaries, seminarians and co-workers, with Basic Ecclesial Communities (BEC) members and staff of Malate Church went on a pilgrimage commemorating the 75th death anniversary of Fr. Francis Vernon Douglas on July 27, 2018. The group passed by the church in Morong, Rizal where Fr. Vernon was assigned for a few weeks in 1938 while learning the Tagalog language.
St. Jerome Church, Morong, Rizal
Then the group proceeded to St. Mary Magdalene Parish, Pililla, Rizal where Fr. Vernon was assigned as parish priest late in 1938, at the age of 28, up to 1943 when he was killed. Some parishioners of Pililla, Rizal joined the group for a Prayer Service at the sala in the parish convent where Fr. Vernon used to live. Solemnity was in the air while listening to and reflecting on the Gospel readings and excerpts from Here was a Strong and Brave Man, an article written by Fr. John Keenan that gives an account of how Fr. Vernon died in the hands of the Japanese soldiers. It was in this church that he was interrogated, suspected as a spy for refusing to talk about what some guerrillas might have disclosed to him in the Sacrament of Confession. The community singing of How Great Thou Art at the end of the prayer service was joyful and touching. A picture frame of Fr. Vernon was given to the parish which was received by Fr. Jun Menesis, parish priest.
Prayer Service at the sala in the parish convent, Pililla
Some parishioners from Pililla joined the pilgrimage to Paete, Laguna, where some priests, parishioners and students were waiting for the Eucharistic celebration at St. James the Apostle Parish. It was in this church that Fr. Vernon was brought to be tortured along with around 250 men during the Japanese occupation in 1943. To give an overview of the life of Fr. Vernon, a shorter version of the film Epitaph (Series 2) was shown, followed by video testimonies of three eyewitnesses from Pililla and Paete, and a message from the Douglas family in New Zealand.
Eucharistic celebration at St. James the Apostle Church, Paete
We were graced by the presence of Msgr. Jerry Bitoon who was the main celebrant. To quote him in his homily,
“Is it not a kind of martyrdom that in the midst of all his sufferings, he was not seen with a bitter face? With blood gushing out from his face but lips moving as he was praying the holy rosary – in the face of extreme violence and cruelty is the serenity of the suffering servant.
At present, our lives are at risk with the recent news on the killings of the priests. Sometimes I would think, ‘will I be the next?’ But should fate would have it right in front of me, as a priest I should be ready to die for Christ. We have seen in Fr. Vernon his readiness. He probably thought of hiding himself but the mission dominated as he once said, ‘Whether there will be war or no war, I will be here’. That is echoing the spirit of somebody who had such a missionary spirit, the making of a martyr.”
At the pillar, under the choir loft, where Fr. Venon was tied
Msgr. Jerry blessed the post where Fr. Vernon was tied and the rest of the pilgrims venerated on it. It was heart-warming to see some elders present who also had their own share of story at the time when Fr. Vernon was brought to their place. Joven Cajepe, a local historian, shared how his research about the tortured priest led him to a deeper reflection on its importance in the history of Paete.
Ms. Gigi Arevalo and her sketch of Fr. Vernon Douglas with Mr. Valdecantos
The program continued with a dinner at the Valdecantos residence celebrating a fulfilling day with pilgrims from different places coming together, commemorating the life and martyrdom of Fr. Vernon Douglas. Along with the people of New Zealand, who are praying for the sainthood of Fr. Vernon, and those who joined us in spirit and prayer, “we remember, we celebrate, we believe”.
The congregation at St. James the Apostle Church, Paete