IT MIGHT be a cliché to say that they don't make women like Helen Carey Collins anymore, but in her case, it's hard to resist that characterization.

Take the birth of her daughter Helen Regina.

Mom was engaged in preparing a big Thanksgiving dinner in her South Philadelphia home that Nov. 24, 1950, when the birth pains started.

She had already called her doctor and he was present when Helen Regina was born in the house. After the delivery, Mom went right back to the kitchen and finished preparing the meal. And she washed the dishes.

Maybe back in pioneer days, that story wouldn't be so remarkable. But in modern-day America - even in the '50s - it was as unusual as it was admirable.

But that was the kind of woman Helen was - tough but loving, hardworking all her life, but with the ability to kick back and relax after her retirement with visits to the Atlantic City casinos.

She died Sunday at age 88.

Her life was not easy from the start. She was born in Philadelphia to Marguerite Cox and Dan Carey, Irish immigrants. Two years later, her mother died giving birth to her late brother, Daniel.

Her father was unable to care for her and the infant son, so she was sent to an orphanage. She didn't remember much about those years. Her most vivid memory was when her Aunt Kate McCalley got her out of the orphanage at the age of 14 and took her to her home.

Helen attended Sacred Heart of Jesus Parochial School in South Philadelphia.

In 1938, she married Frank "Dit" Collins. They had nine children. He died in 1971. He was the love of her life. A photo of the two of them together hung on the wall for all to remember a true love.

And every year, she placed a memoriam with his picture in the South Philadelphia Review.

Helen's first job was with the old Chase Bag Factory. During World War II, she worked at a flour-packing factory, rising to the position of manager. She also was involved in child care.

But her toughest work had to have been taking care of 11 people in a two-bedroom house, where she did the weekly laundry on a washboard at a fireplug outside the house. She then ironed all the clothes and put them away for the family.

Helen was a legendary cook, and, even when times were hard, there was plenty of food on the table, and not just for the family. All you had to be was hungry.

Sumptuous dinners were made from scratch, and her doughnuts had the kids and grandkids reaching for more.

She also enjoyed good food. A favorite restaurant was Snockey's Oyster and Crab House, where she enjoyed the raw clams.

Neighbors counted on her to keep the unit block of Dudley Street, between Mifflin and Mc-Kean, in good order.

She was a champion knitter, making scarves, sweaters, hats and baby garments for family and friends.

Helen had a strong religious belief, and was convinced that her mother, Marguerite Carey, watched over her. There was, for instance, the time the car caught fire while she was being driven to the Shore by a granddaughter, Patrice.

She was certain that the police officer who came to help them - whose name happened to be Carey - had been sent from heaven by her mother.

There also were saints to be prayed to, each for special occasions.

"She had a very strong will," said her daughter Marguerite Edwards. "She taught us to be independent and strong, but also kind."

Besides her daughters, Marguerite and Helen Regina, called Jeanne, she is survived by four sons, Francis, William, Joseph and Thomas; three other daughters, Claire, Helen and Catherine; 21 grandchildren, and 27 great-grandchildren.

Services: Funeral Mass 10 a.m. Friday at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, 3rd and Reed streets. Friends may call at 7 p.m. tomorrow and at 8:30 a.m. Friday at the Murphy-Ruffenach Funeral Home, 3rd and Wolf streets. Burial will be in Ss. Peter and Paul Cemetery, Marple. *