Helen Carey Collins' life was marked by hard times, hard work and devotion to her family. She was sent to an orphanage when she was 2, she went to work in a factory when she was 14, and she reared nine children in a two-bedroom rowhouse in Pennsport. And after her children were old enough to take care of themselves, she returned to working in factories.

Mrs. Collins, 88, died Sunday of diabetes and hypertension at the home of daughter Claire McCann.

The former Helen Carey was 2 years old when her mother died shortly after giving birth to a son. Her father, a longshoreman, was overwhelmed and placed the babies in Catholic orphanages.

Her children said that growing up in an orphanage was difficult for their mother, whom they called "Merr."

"Merr told us she did not remember anything from those days until she was 14 and her aunt brought her home," said daughter Marguerite Edwards.

This was during the Depression. The teen went to work at Chase Bag Co., a burlap-bag factory in South Philadelphia, and later went dancing on weekends.

In 1938, she met Frank "Dit" Collins at one of those dances. Before the year was out, they had married. They eventually settled in a two-bedroom brick rowhouse in Pennsport.

He was a longshoreman and she stayed home for 15 years until the last of her nine children went off to school.

"There were so many beds in the two bedrooms, it was difficult to walk," said Edwards.

Mrs. Collins had a story about the birth of each baby. For example, daughter Jeanne Yaworski was born in the middle of Thanksgiving Day preparations. "Merr gave birth in her bedroom and went right back to preparing the feast and washing the dishes," Yaworski said.

Although there was always a shortage of money, "none of us ever went hungry and our clothes were spotless," daughter Kitty Stewart said.

Mrs. Collins did laundry for 11 every day. She filled up the wash tub under a fire hydrant behind her home, scrubbed the clothes on a washboard, and hung them out to dry on a community line.

"Merr dipped the clothes in starch, put them in the freezer, and then ironed them until they were as hard as a board," Edwards said. "She also polished our white shoes, washed the shoestrings, and detailed the soles."

Mrs. Collins did all the cooking for her brood. She made a list and sent one child to the corner store each day, sometimes twice a day. She prepared enormous pots of stew and soups and also made doughnuts.

"Each of us had a chore," said daughter Claire McCann. "She ruled us with an iron fist and a warm heart."

Starting in 1953, Mrs. Collins worked the night shift at a chemical factory nearby. She made foot powder for soldiers before being put in charge of the factory line that made toilet cleaner.

"On her break, Merr went out on the factory's fire escape and hollered at us what to heat up for dinner," McCann said.

In 1971, Mrs. Collins' husband died. She never forgot him. His picture hung alongside the Virgin Mary and the Holy Cross.

In 1983, she quit her factory job and moved a few blocks away into daughter Kitty Stewart's home. For the next 10 years, she was a nanny for two neighborhood children until they went to college.

When Mrs. Collins was not saying the rosary, she was knitting. "Merr made a brown angora stole lined in brown satin for my prom gown," said McCann. "It looked like a mink."

"Merr loved sitting in a beach chair or on the stoop watching her grandchildren play," said McCann. "She also enjoyed playing the slots in Atlantic City. On one trip the car caught on fire. She wouldn't get out of the car until she got her handbag. When a policeman named Officer Carey [no relation] helped her, she said her mother had sent him from heaven."

In addition to her daughters, Mrs. Collins is survived by sons Francis, William, Joseph, Thomas, and Danny; 21 grandchildren; and 27 great-grandchildren.

Friends may visit at 7 tonight and at 8:30 a.m. tomorrow at Murphy-Ruffenach Funeral Home, Third and Wolf Streets. A Funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. tomorrow at Sacred Heart of Jesus Roman Catholic Church. Burial will be in SS. Peter and Paul Cemetery, Sproul and Crum Creek Roads, Marple Township.

Donations may be sent to Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, 1404 S. Third St., Philadelphia 19147.

Contact staff writer Gayle Ronan Sims at 215-854-4185 or gsims@phillynews.com.