In what has been described as an act of martyrdom, a 35-year-old nun working at an Aids hospice outside Dundee died at the weekend trying to rescue patients from a fire.

Sister Anne Thole, had worked at the Roman Catholic Church's Maria Ratschitz Mission, tending to Aids patients. The fire had broken out in a thatched-roof building on Saturday night, apparently ignited by a patient's cigarette, according to Irmingard Thalmeier.

Thalmeier is a medical doctor and nun who started the hospice, 30km from Dundee, beneath the Hlatikulu Mountain. She said five of the eight patients had been evacuated, but three men had perished in the flames along with Thole.

Thole had worked at the hospice since 2005 and had come from Nkandla. "She was a lovely, intelligent and unselfish person," said Thalmeier.

"We managed to get five of the patients out. We were trying to get back into the building when somebody called us and we were distracted, but Sister Anne went in. The fumes became too much and the roof collapsed," she said.

Retired Bishop Michael Rowland, who lives 500m from the hospice, said: "It was very dramatic. I was woken by a caller saying the hospice was on fire. By the time I got there, the building was blazing and we tried to put it out with garden hoses, but the wooden staircase and thatch were a column of fire."

Rowland said: "Sister Anne was so brave. She gave her life for the patients. She exuded tremendous joy and had a great love of her vocation. She played the guitar well, and ran the choir and sang. All the novices loved her."