The Christmas Eve service at St. Mary of Mount Carmel Church in Hammonton, N.J., was crowded, so Dolores Distler, 77, and her husband, Melvin, 78, parked across the street.

Christmas was her favorite time of year. She often decorated the lawn with reindeer and the trees with bright lights. Each Dec. 24, the devout Catholic attended church. This year, as she left the service on a rainy evening, she was telling her husband how much she enjoyed it.

When the couple approached Route 206, there was a lull in traffic, and Melvin Distler thought they could make it across. But as they crossed around 5:50 p.m., the headlights of a minivan bore down on them.

Melvin Distler was one step ahead of his wife, clutching her hand. "Dolores, hurry up!" he hollered, his feet reaching the curb.

She uttered one last word: "I -."

Then the minivan struck her, and he felt her hand slip away.

He was left holding only keys and an umbrella.

The minivan stopped about 300 feet away, Melvin Distler said. He ran toward the car and his wife's body. A few churchgoers held him back.

When Melvin Distler arrived at the hospital, doctors told him there was nothing they could do. His wife of 58 years was gone.

"I was holding her hand when she got hit," Melvin Distler said Friday, pausing to hold back tears as he spoke from his Hammonton home. "It was only maybe a matter of one step, and she would have been across."

Police have called the death accidental. No charges have been filed against the driver, a 50-year-old Hammonton man who cooperated with police.

The story of Melvin and Dolores Distler goes back to Northeast Philadelphia, where the two grew up. They met at a 1950s "soda shop," as he described it, called Lester's.

"She went in with a girlfriend" who knew a friend of his, he recalled. "They got talking," he said, "and my wife and I got talking."

Shortly afterward, at age 20, they married. They had the first of three children about a year later.

In the early 1960s, the family moved to South Jersey, where Dolores Distler worked for some time in a hospital's credit department, helping people with outstanding bills. Mostly, she was a homemaker.

She loved collecting dolls and teddy bears, Melvin Distler said. At Christmas she used the dolls to decorate their house in National Park, Gloucester County, and the gazebo at the Hammonton senior complex where they moved two years ago.

"She loved Christmas; she loved decorating," Melvin Distler said. "This was her favorite time of the year, just about."

She was also passionate about church, which they attended each Saturday evening, he said.

"The only time she would ever miss Mass is if she would be sick and couldn't make it," he said.

At the service Wednesday, the two sat in the second row. They had talked about a Christmas gathering with family the following day but had decided to spend it together.

It was suppose to be peaceful. Relaxing.

Instead, Melvin Distler found himself mourning.

Now he wonders about that last step.

"We went across the street," he said. "We just didn't make it."

mboren@phillynews.com

856-779-3829 @borenmc