Blandine Schilling, 99, leads an active life of faith

HILTON HEAD — Blandine Schilling, 99, has become one of the best-known members of St. Francis by the Sea Church.
She attends daily Mass so faithfully, always sitting in the front row, that when she left for a two-month trip earlier this summer, she was instantly missed.
Daughter Susan Boyd said that dozens of people greet her by name at church social functions, and at locations around the island. Her birthdays have become a cause for celebration at the parish.
Schilling, a native of France, will celebrate her 100th birthday on Oct. 16. She said her strong religious faith and a good attitude have helped her live this long. “My faith helps me to live. I could not be without it,” Schilling said in a recent interview with The Miscellany. “I have been so blessed to have a healthy life and a healthy family.”
She’s been a member at St. Francis by the Sea since 1998, when she moved to South Carolina from Florida.
She grew up in the city of Tourcoing in the north of France, in a region known for its textile mills. Schilling started working in the mills when she was 13, and became adept at a skill called  “invisible mending,” which involved hand sewing to fix flaws in fabric as it came off the looms.
She came to the United States through Ellis Island at the age of 19, after the death of her mother.
“She had four brothers and sisters at home, and her father let her go because she could send money home,” Boyd said. “She also said she wanted to come because of the adventure of going to the United States.”
Schilling remembered one humorous anecdote from her time at Ellis Island. A processing agent told her that American girls “would be jealous of her beautiful teeth.”  Schilling grew up during World War I, and she said sugar and sweets were almost nonexistent.
Schilling moved to Philadelphia to live with an aunt and took a job in her mending shop. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, Schilling’s “invisible mending” was in high demand because people couldn’t afford to buy new clothes and brought them to her to be repaired.
In Philadelphia, Schilling met a German immigrant, Ernest Schilling, when both were enrolled in night school to learn English. The two married and raised seven children — three girls and four boys — in Philadelphia, where Ernest ran a restaurant called the Fernwood Diner.
The family continued to grow over the years. Schilling now has 18 grandchildren and 17 great-grands.
Ernest wasn’t Catholic when they were first married, so the couple said their vows in a rectory. He later became a convert, and the couple renewed their vows with a full church wedding in 1960.
They moved to Strathmere, N.J., and ran a grocery store and grill there until the early ‘80s, and then retired to Florida. Ernest died in 1991, and Schilling moved to Hilton Head seven years later.
For many years, she walked to the church from her apartment at an assisted living facility adjacent to the church property.
These days, Boyd drops Schilling off for Mass in the morning.
“She’s treated like the doyenne of the church,” Boyd said. “People vie to take her home when it’s over.”
“She’s quite an individual,” said Dr. Vincent Rerucha, a retired physician and fellow member of St. Francis who regularly drives Schilling home from daily Mass. “She is really considerate of everybody; she’s got a good memory; she knows everybody at St. Francis. And everybody knows Blandine.”
Lorraine Dufour also drives Schilling home frequently, and the women have become close friends.
“She’s a really sweet lady and such a devoted parishioner,” Dufour said. “She loves a party and loves a good time. I draw a lot of inspiration from her. She’s like an Eveready battery; she keeps going.”
Schilling’s daily life is an active one. She plays games three times a week, takes senior exercise classes, and reads three or more murder mysteries a week. Her favorite author is Agatha Christie. She crochets and makes baby blankets for each new family birth.
She also still nurtures a lifelong love for travel. Her most recent trips took her to Montana for a grandchild’s wedding, Bermuda, Philadelphia and upstate New York.
Her Catholic faith, Schilling said, is one of the reasons she is able to stay so active. She also knows how important it is to help others live their faith, she added.
Schilling is an extraordinary minister of holy Communion who regularly brings the Eucharist to shut-ins at her assisted living complex.
She said she has a special devotion to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, likes to say the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi and regularly prays seven rosaries a day.
“My mother has a very strong belief in God watching over her,” Boyd said. “She’s weathered the sadness in her life with an unshakeable faith.”
Schilling said she doesn’t have any overly profound advice for people who wonder how she’s lived this long. Her three simple tips sum up the way she’s approached her entire life.
“Stay active, stay involved, and keep the faith,” she said.