FORT KENT — Each week, in his Sunday homilies at St. Louis Roman Catholic Church, the Rev. James Nadeau highlights a different saint celebrated for welcoming outsiders or treating the afflicted.

So Nadeau was surprised last week when people criticized 33-year-old Kaci Hickox, who returned to her home in Fort Kent after treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone.

He thought his parishioners might ask him, as a spiritual leader, how they should act, but nobody did.

Fort Kent people are not judgmental people, but they are cautious, he said.

Nadeau, a respected leader in this rural part of northern Maine, where nearly 90 percent of the population are members of his congregation, planned to use Hickox’s return to remind them of the moral lesson in his homilies.

“We don’t have to throw caution to the wind, but at the same time, we have to be welcoming,” he said. “Jesus himself was an outsider.”

Residents in Fort Kent, a town of 4,100 on the Canadian border, have been sharply divided about whether Hickox should have waited until after the 21-day incubation period for Ebola – which in her case ends Nov. 10 – to come home, or at least remained in quarantine until then.

Hickox’s case has turned the town into an unexpected stage for a national debate over public safety versus constitutional rights.

Officials at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, where Hickox’s boyfriend, Ted Wilbur, is a nursing student, asked Wilbur to stay away from campus after several students said they were concerned that he might have been exposed to the virus through contact with Hickox. Others have shown their support for Hickox by sending flowers, dropping off gift bags and delivering meals to the house.

Gary Sibley, a state game warden, described Hickox’s fight as “unreasonable,” saying she “lacks a lot of common sense.”

“It’s just human decency to look out for other people and not put them at risk. She might be fine, but it’s pretty selfish of her,” Sibley said Wednesday as he left the Post Office downtown.

Robert Michaud, a retired attorney who has lived in Fort Kent almost his entire life, said the events of the past week have split the town. The majority of the people he has spoken with believe Hickox should have been more considerate of her community. She was viewed as heroic for volunteering in Africa to fight Ebola, but her actions since returning to the U.S. have colored some perceptions of her. While Michaud said he never bought into the fears that gripped some of his fellow residents, he believes her actions were “inconsiderate.”

“She didn’t treat people in her hometown like she did people in Africa,” Michaud said during breakfast at Doris’ Cafe on Saturday morning. “She should have addressed their fears, whether they’re well-founded or not.”

Alex Degler, a nursing student at the university, said some of the things people were saying about Hickox were “terrible,” but he understood that they were reacting out of fear.

Until last week, the fears over the virus in the United States had largely focused on major urban centers, such as Dallas, where the first person in the United States to contract Ebola died on Oct. 8; or New York City, where a doctor tested positive last month for Ebola.

But when Hickox returned to Maine last week after being released from involuntary quarantine in New Jersey, it was tiny Fort Kent where national news networks converged to search for her.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage’s administration sought last week to have Hickox quarantined in her home by court order. Hickox argued that she was not a threat, since she has remained healthy.

“I don’t trust this woman,” LePage said Friday.

In a temporary ruling, a judge rejected the state’s effort to restrict Hickox’s movements until at least Tuesday, when there will be a formal hearing on the state’s petition.

A newcomer in town

Some of the harsh reactions could stem from the fact that Hickox and Wilbur only moved to town in August, so Wilbur could attend the university’s nursing program.

Wilbur said Friday that they were aware residents were still nervous about their presence.

“We’re not going into town as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “I live here. I’m a member of the community. I respect the community’s wishes and they wish us not to come into town.”

Chad Pelletier, president of the Fort Kent Historical Society, said people here have long memories and may have reacted more negatively because Hickox is not a longtime resident.

Pelletier said many families in the region have long histories in the area, with ancestries dating back to the time New Brunswick, Canada, and Maine went to war for the land in 1839 before the St. John River was declared the border between Canada and Maine in 1842.

“I think it would have been different, honestly, if she was one of us. It’s more ignorance than anything else,” Pelletier said. “Fort Kent is the kind of town with no happy medium.”

Pelletier predicted that life in Fort Kent will go back to normal if nothing happens by Nov. 10, but that people will always associate Hickox with this episode.

Michaud agreed.

“It will all be forgotten in a month or two, unless something else happens,” he said. “Time heals all wounds.”

Since the judge’s order, Wilbur and Hickox have said they have no intention of making people uncomfortable by going into town. Just after dusk Friday, the two took a walk in their neighborhood.

Other than a brief appearance Friday afternoon in her driveway to talk to the gaggle of photographers and reporters camped outside, it was Hickox’s first time out of the house since a bike ride Thursday morning in defiance of the state’s quarantine that caused a media frenzy.

Their early evening jaunt created less of a fuss, though many cameras were there to capture the moment. A short distance down the street, Wilbur and Hickox stopped to speak to one of their neighbors.

“I said ‘hello’ and that it was nice to see them out and that I was glad this seems to be heading somewhere toward a resolution,” said David Bouchard, a lifelong Fort Kent resident who lives across the street from the couple. “And I told them how I felt about the whole situation … that it’s a whole hoopla making a big story out of a small issue.”

Bouchard met the couple when they first moved to town. He said he didn’t know them well, but was friendly, sharing some of his homegrown tomatoes with them.

Unlike some fellow residents, Bouchard said he isn’t afraid to be in close contact with Hickox.

“It doesn’t sound as easily transmitted as some fear it to be. There are more people dying from more common illnesses in this country,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think being cautious is not a good thing.”

He added that he’s looking forward to getting his neighborhood back. The 30 or so cars and trucks parked along the road for the past week and the “house lit up like a movie set” because of all the TV cameras and bright lights have been an inconvenience, but “nothing I can’t handle,” he said.

He added that the news coverage was “extremely excessive.”

“I’d like to see half the dollars spent here trying to get a story spent to combat the illness or educate the public about the illness,” he said.

A quiet town

The arrival of Hickox and Wilbur last week was probably the first time many people outside Maine had heard of Fort Kent. Better known as a snowmobiling and hunting destination, the town last made international news in 2011 as the wintry wilderness host to a Biathlon World Cup event. Before that, the biggest media event in the region was when the St. John River flooded a large section of downtown Fort Kent in 2008.

Farming and logging are the most common jobs. Tractor-trailer trucks loaded with freshly cut trees frequently traverse West Main Street, which overlooks the river and border bridge into Canada. The church is the tallest building in town, which is set amid a scenic backdrop of rolling forested hills, divided by the winding river valley.

“When I heard they were coming here, I said, ‘What are you talking about? Who comes to Fort Kent?’ We are at the end of the road. I mean, after us is Canada,” said Nadeau during an interview in his church rectory Thursday.

Nadeau is pastor to a congregation of about 6,000 people in northern Maine in six different churches, covering a 617-square-mile area dominated by Catholics of Franco-American descent.

“The only traffic jam in Fort Kent is when church lets out,” Nadeau said.

But by the end of last week, there were many more traffic jams on the usually quiet country road in front of the home rented by Hickox and Wilbur.

Television satellite trucks, banks of cameras on tripods and nearly 50 journalists had staked out the house, scrambling to document any movement either inside or outside, as the legal showdown between authorities and Hickox’s lawyers simmered.

Fort Kent Police Chief Thomas Pelletier, who checked up on Hickox and Wilbur several times during the week and delivered a bag of groceries to them, said Friday he didn’t believe the saga was yet over, noting that a formal hearing on the state’s petition to quarantine Hickox won’t be held until Tuesday, and 30 or so cars from media organizations ranging from the New York Times to the Daily Mail, a British tabloid, were still parked on her street.

He added Friday that his department had fielded calls from all over the country from people who had opinions on Hickox’s actions.

“She is a citizen of our community,” he said. “They are citizens of our community and we want to make sure they are safe.”