Vincent de Paul Cotte was born on April 1, 1886, in Laudun, in the department of the Gard, in France. Drawn to religious life, he entered the Premonstrant order, which had an abbey in the region named Saint Michel de Frigolet. The stages of his religious training were marked by the following dates: May 1, 1902, he receives the white habit of the sons of Saint Norbert; May 24, 1904, first vows; May 24, 1910, formal vows, and finally March 26, 1911, priestly ordination.
During the first few years of his religious life, Cotte was a teacher at the juvenate of the Abbey of Saint Michel de Frigolet, but he was to give many of his subsequent years to missionary activities. That period of his life started with World War I, at which time he met some Malagasy soldiers who had come to France. He was to be their chaplain throughout the war.
He had felt a certain attachment to and sympathy for the Malagasy soldiers while they were in France, and as it turned out, he was going to able to continue that affinity he felt with them in their homeland. In 1920, the regular Canon Premonstrant fathers of the Abbey of Frigolet offered their services to Monsignor de Saune, the vicar apostolic of Madagascar. The vicar was happy to accept their offer, because he needed missionaries. He offered the Premonstrant fathers work in a vast area that had been attended to by a single Jesuit priest who had found it difficult to cover such a large area, and that is how the “Priory of Vatomandry” came into existence. Cotte and another priest arrived in Tamatave to take over the work in early December of 1920. Cotte was named Superior of the Mission of Vatomandry, and he directed the work there for fifteen years, from 1920 to 1935.
Unfortunately, the Abbey of Saint Michel de Frigolet was unable to send the personnel that had been hoped for. There were at most four or five Premonstrants at work there, but the work they accomplished was nonetheless quite remarkable. When they finally had to leave because the helpers they needed were not forthcoming, and had to turn the work over to the Montfortains, they left behind: three districts that were already quite well organized; two prosperous central stations, Vatomandry and Mahanoro; many schools, and a number of other projects that were well underway.
To his regret, Cotte had to leave Madagascar, but he was able to put his missionary experience to work in another place in another African country, which was Congo.
When World War II broke out, he was able to work with Malagasy people once more, serving as their military chaplain in France in 1939 and 1940.
When the 1940 armistice was declared, Cotte found himself in the north, separated from the Abbey of Frigolet by the demarcation line. He offered himself to the diocese of Versailles, and served as a priest in several parishes, including the parish of Chars, in the department of Seine et Oise. He also wrote a much-appreciated brochure on the history of the beautiful church there.
He later went to the south of France and was received by the diocese of Nice. He worked in Grasse for fifteen years, first as an auxiliary priest and then as a chaplain among the Petites Soeurs des Pauvres [Lesser Sisters of the Poor].
Towards the end of his life he retired among the Lesser Sisters of the Poor in Nice, where he died on February 23, 1972.
Always eager to learn and highly cultured, Cotte wanted to have a deep understanding of the peoples among which he carried out his apostleship. He wanted to know their language, their customs, and their religious beliefs. The fifteen years he spent among the Betsimisaraka led to his authorship of a remarkable book, “Regardons Vivre une tribu Malgache,” [Looking in on the Life of a Malagasy Tribe] that was published in 1946, with a preface by Marius and Ary Leblond.
This is how he explained the circumstances that led him to write the book:
At the inception of our colonial career - which was a long one - we would have paid any price for a book that would have provided, even in summary fashion, a serious description of the religion and customs of the native Betsimisaraka.
It seemed to us that with the help of such a book, we would have been able to speed through the exceedingly long stages that lead to understanding, and therefore to knowing how to better love and to more carefully educate, the native soul.
Since we were never able to find such a book, neither in the early nor later years, we patiently wrote it ourselves, in starts and fits, and here it is.
Thus, this 236 page book that is based on very particular and verified facts that were gathered in the field, is a major primary source document related to understanding the Betsimisaraka, a tribe that until then had not been studied in an overall manner.
The work became somewhat renowned, and Cotte was able to become a member of the A.D.E.L.F. (Association des Écrivains de langue Française - Mer et Outre-Mer) [Association of French Language Writers - National and International].
R. P. Vincent Cotte, Regardons vivre une tribu malgache, les Betsimisaraka [Looking in on the Life of a Malagasy Tribe, the Betsimisaraka], Paris, 1947, La Nouvelle Edition.
A. Boudou, Madagascar. La mission de Tananarive [Madagascar. The Antananarivo Mission], Antananarivo, 1941.
The above article, reprinted here by permission, is from Hommes et Destins: Dictionnaire biographique d’Outre-Mer [People and Destinies: an Overseas Biographical Dictionary], vol. 3, published in 1977 by the Académie des Sciences d’Outre-Mer (15, rue la Pérouse, 75116 Paris, France). All rights reserved.