Holy Child Sister Eleanor Carbin, 96, celebrates 78 years in religious life this year. (Sarah Webb)

Holy Child Sister Eleanor Carbin, 96, celebrates 78 years in religious life this year. (Sarah Webb)

When Sister Eleanor Carbin, a Sister of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, participated in the offertory procession at the Sept. 12 Mass honoring religious jubilarians at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, it begged the question, what were the real gifts?

Were they the unconsecrated wafers and wine brought to the altar, or were they gifts of almost 78 years of selfless service offered before the throne of God by Sister Eleanor, as well as the combined more than 15,000 years of service by the 250 women and men honored that day?

Sister Eleanor was born in Massachusetts in 1920, the eldest of the 10 children of Irish immigrants Thomas and Catherine Ellen (Lamb) Carbin. When she was 3 the family returned to Ireland to meet the relatives because Thomas and Catherine were from different areas and didn’t really know each other’s family. It must have been quite a visit because they stayed three years, returning to America in time for Eleanor to enter school.

“We lived in Medford then Melrose,” she recalls, “and I went through high school at St. Mary‘s School run by the Holy Child Sisters and I entered the society on December 31, 1938.”

Her first dream was to be a missionary to Africa and to this end while in high school she wrote to the White Sisters of Our Lady of Africa and to the Maryknoll Sisters and received encouraging responses from both. But she really liked her teachers, the Holy Child Sisters, and they did have one mission in Africa at the time.

“If God wants me in Africa he will send me to that house,” she reasoned.

What really attracted her to the Society of the Holy Child was the charism of their foundress, Philadelphia-born Mother (now Venerable) Cornelia Connelly.

“Holy Child schools have a joyful spirit,” she said. “We were all given the title mother (not sister) so that when we are teaching, the children are our children and we should treat them as such.”

Her dreams of African missions were not immediately realized, and she taught in a number of schools including the former St. Edward in North Philadelphia. Then in 1949 she was sent to Africa.

“I was there from 1949 until 1978 in Nigeria and Ghana,” she recalls. “I taught in secondary schools and teacher training colleges and did rural ministry. In 1978 I came home and taught English as a Second Language all across this country. Then I went to Slovakia, to teach English as a Second Language to sisters in a monastery.”

After that she came back to America and continued to teach ESL at various locations. Over the years Sister Eleanor estimates she has lived in 46 different residences to date during her long life.

Just recently she joined a small group of retired Holy Child Sisters in residence at the Hearth at Drexel, the former Mary Drexel Home in Bala Cynwyd.

Her new residence has a slight connection with Philadelphia’s first native-born saint. Mary Drexel Lankenau (1821-1873) for whom the facility is named, was the aunt and godmother of St. Katharine Drexel.

In retirement, Sister Eleanor stays active, even at age 96. She reads to bedridden residents and volunteers in the office.

The joy of her vocation, she said, “is the fact that I was accepted into the order and am receiving hundred-fold rewards every day.”

It sounds like she had a wonderful life.

“No,” she corrected. “It wasn’t a wonderful life, it is a wonderful life.”