With her identical twin sister Olive, she received her master's degree from Yale at the age of 17, worked for a while at the Atlanta Constitution, followed by graduate study in Latin American problems at USC. Then it was on to National University in Mexico City and eventually to Berkeley in 1936, drawn there by the great Latin Americanist Eugene Bolton, who accepted both Helen and Olive into his seminar on 16th-Century Spanish colonial history.
She went on to make a living as a free-lance writer, ghosting a number of books for Viking Press and pursuing her scholarly interests at Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. As a research associate there, she has assembled the world's largest collection of rare Las Casas books and documents.
She never married, and from time to time, well-meaning friends would try to find a mate for Helen. "I see no reason to get married and have children," she would say dismissively. "My sister did it for me!"
Parish, in fact, grew up wanting to be a priest. Denied such a career, she has contented herself by advancing the cause of Las Casas and maintaining a vow of celibacy. But the church's refusal to accept women as priests still rankles. "The non-ordination of women is contrary to the nature of humanity," she says. When, several years ago, the Dominican Institute of Theology awarded her an honorary doctorate of divinity, she mounted a lighthearted protest by showing up for the ceremony in a cardinal's scarlet cap.
When she was a child, her mother introduced her to the classics of utopian thought, from Thomas More to Saint Simon. At the Atlanta Constitution she had investigated the causes of rural poverty, and she still contributes to rural charities. In the cause of Las Casas, she seems to have found a way to synthesize her priestly and political inclinations.
THOUGH WRITERS SUCH AS MARIO VARGAS LLOSA HAVE HAILED HIM AS the most active and influential of New World reformers, even many Catholics would be hard-pressed to identify Bartolome de las Casas. The so-called "Apostle to the Indians" rates not even a mention in the current Catholic Encyclopedia and was condemned as a troublemaker in older editions. "Everywhere he found abuses, and everywhere painted them in the blackest colours, making no allowances for the dark side of the Indian character," complains the 1908 volume.
As she works to rescue Las Casas from such interpretations and neglect, Parish seems to wear the hats of historian and hagiographer interchangeably, although she rejects the latter label. "Saints \o7 are\f7 , regardless of whether the church says so. All I'm after is the truth," she insists.
There are three steps on the way to sainthood: The Pope must first declare the candidate "venerable"--that he lived a life of heroic virtue. Next comes beatification, a determination by the Vatican that a miracle occurred through prayers to the candidate. Canonization could follow upon the verification of a second miracle. The Pope can waive the requirement for either miracle.
The subject of miracles presents no great problem for Parish. People from many nations recognize Las Casas as a saint and pray to him, she contends, adding that in France alone he has been credited with three miraculous cures. The church will not investigate those claims until Las Casas is declared venerable.
For Parish, two questions help distinguish a saint from an ordinary humanitarian: "Was he divinely inspired? Was he providentially assisted?"
Donning her hagiographer's cap, Parish says yes to both. "Las Casas always thought he was called by God. Even at the end of his life when Friar Rodrigo de Ladrada, his companion and secretary of many years, would hear his confessions aloud--they were both getting deaf--Las Casas would yell at him, 'Your reverend hasn't done enough for the Indians!' In other words, it's a call, it's a duty, it's something God has imposed on him."
As for providence, Parish sees the hand of God in Las Casas' timing. "The two great moments of his life, when he happened to come to court, were the only two moments he could have been heard," she says. The first was his trip to Spain in 1516 to tell King Ferdinand about abuses in his colonies. But Ferdinand died shortly after his arrival, which was fortunate for Las Casas because the king's interest in the natives' well-being ranked well below his interest in gold. Las Casas was left to deal with the regent, Cardinal Cisneros, a cynical but practical man who agreed to a Las Casas proposal for saving the remaining Indians by placing them in self-governing villages--"Crown Towns"--that would pay tribute to the king. But the friars sent to help him, Hieronymites noted for their managerial skills, soon pronounced the plan unworkable, and the first Crown Town experiment, on what is now the Venezualan coast, ended in disaster.