Vincent was born in 1581 in the village of Pouy in Gascony, in the Province of Guyenne and Gascony, the Kingdom of France, to peasant farmers, father Jean and mother Bertrande de Moras de Paul. There was in the vicinity, a stream named the "Paul" and it is believed that this might have been the derivation of the family name. He wrote the name as one word – Depaul, possibly to avoid the inference that he was of noble birth, but none of his correspondents did so. He had three brothers – Jean, Bernard and Gayon, and two sisters – Marie and Marie-Claudine. He was the third child. At an early age, he showed a talent for reading and writing but during his childhood, his work was as a herder of his family's livestock. At 15, his father sent him to seminary, managing to pay for it by selling the family’s oxen.
Vincent's interest in the priesthood at that time was largely with the intent to establish a successful career and obtain a benefice, with which he could retire early and support the family.
For two years, Vincent received his education at a college in Dax, France adjoining a monastery of the Friars Minor where he and others resided. In 1597, he began his studies in the Faculty of Theology at the University of Toulouse. The atmosphere at the university was anything but pious or conducive to spiritual contemplation. Fights broke out between various factions of students which escalated into many armed battles. During the course of the unrest, an official was murdered by two students. Nevertheless, he continued his studies and was finally able to help pay for his education by tutoring others. He was ordained on 23 September 1600 at the age of nineteen in Château-l'Évêque, near Périgueux. This was against the regulations established by the Council of Trent which required a minimum of 24 years of age for ordination, so when he was appointed parish priest in Tilh, the appointment was appealed against in the Court of Rome. Rather than respond to a lawsuit in which he would probably not have prevailed, he resigned from the position and continued his studies. On 12 October 1604 he received his Bachelor of Theology from the University of Toulouse. Later he received a Licentiate in Canon Law from the University of Paris.
In 1605, Vincent sailed from Marseilles on his way back from Castres where he had gone to sell some property he had received in an inheritance from a wealthy patron in Toulouse, and was taken captive by Barbary pirates, who brought him to Tunis. De Paul was auctioned off as a slave to the highest bidder, and spent two years in bondage.
His first master was a fisherman, but Vincent was unsuitable for this line of work due to sea-sickness and was soon sold. His next master was a spagyrical physician, alchemist and inventor. He became fascinated by his arts and was taught how to prepare and administer his master's spagyric remedies.
The fame of Vincent's master became so great that it attracted the attention of men who summoned him to Istanbul. During the passage, the old man died and Vincent was sold once again. His new master was a former priest and Franciscan from Nice, named Guillaume Gautier. He had converted to Islam in order to gain his freedom from slavery and was living in the mountains with three wives. The second wife, a Muslim by birth, was drawn to and visited Vincent in the fields to question him about his faith. She became convinced that his faith was true and admonished her husband for renouncing his Christianity. Her husband became remorseful and decided to escape back to France with his slave. They had to wait ten months, but finally they secretly boarded a small boat and crossed the Mediterranean, landing in Aigues-Mortes on 28 June 1607.
After returning to France, Vincent went to Rome. There he continued his studies until 1609, when he was sent back to France on a mission to King Henry IV. Once in Paris, he made the acquaintance of abbé Pierre de Bérulle, whom he took as his spiritual advisor. André Duval, of the Sorbonne introduced him to Canfield's "Rule of Perfection".
In 1612 he was sent as parish priest to the Church of Saint-Medard in Clichy. In less than a year Bérulle recalled him to Paris to serve as a chaplain and tutor to the Gondi family. Preaching a mission to the peasants on the Gondi estates persuaded him that he should direct his efforts to the poor. It was the Countess de Gondi who persuaded her husband to endow and support a group of able and zealous missionaries who would work among poor tenant farmers and country people in general.
On 13 May 1643, with Louis XIII dead, Queen Anne had her husband's will annulled by the Parlement de Paris (a judicial body comprising mostly nobles and high clergymen). This action abolished the regency council and made Anne sole Regent of France. Anne exiled some of her husband's ministers (Chavigny, Bouthilier), and she nominated Brienne as her minister of foreign affairs; she also nominated Saint Vincent de Paul as her spiritual adviser, which helped her deal with religious policy and the Jansenism question.
In 1617, Vincent contacted the daughters of charity and they then introduced him to poor families. Vincent then brought them food and comfort and made sure they were okay. He organized these wealthy women of Paris to collect funds for missionary projects, found hospitals, and gather relief funds for the victims of war and to ransom 1,200 galley slaves from North Africa. From this participation of women would eventually come, with the help of St. Louise de Marillac, the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul (French: Filles de la Charité), a Society of Apostolic Life for women within the Catholic Church.
In 1622 Vincent was appointed chaplain to the galleys. After working for some time in Paris among imprisoned galley-slaves, he returned to be the superior of what is now known as the Congregation of the Mission, or the "Vincentians" (in France known as "Lazaristes"). These priests, with vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and stability, were to devote themselves entirely to the people in smaller towns and villages.
Vincent was zealous in conducting retreats for clergy at a time when there was great laxity, abuse, and ignorance among them. He was a pioneer in clerical training and was instrumental in establishing seminaries. He spent twenty-eight years serving as the spiritual director of the Convent of St. Mary of Angels.
Vincent died in Paris on 27 September 1660.
Vincent is the patron of all works of charity. A number of organizations specifically inspired by his work and teaching and which claim St. Vincent de Paul as their founder or Patron, are grouped in a loose federation known as the Vincentian Family. The 1996 publication The Vincentian Family Tree presents an overview of related communities from a genealogical perspective.
Among these organizations is the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, a charitable organization dedicated to the service of the poor, established in 1833 by French university students, led by the Blessed Frederic Ozanam. The Society is today present in 132 countries.
In 1705, the Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission requested that the holy process of Vincent's canonization be instituted. On 13 August 1729, he was declared blessed by Pope Benedict XIII. He was canonized nearly eight years later by Pope Clement XII on 16 June 1737.
Vincent's body was exhumed in 1712, 53 years after his death. The written account of an eyewitness states that "the eyes and nose alone showed some decay". However, when it was exhumed again during the canonization in 1737, it was found to have decomposed due to an underground flood. His bones have been encased in a waxen figure which is displayed in a glass reliquary in the chapel of the headquarters of the Vincentian fathers in Paris. His heart is still incorrupt, and is displayed in a reliquary in the chapel of the motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity in Paris.
In 1737, Vincent's feast day was included in the Roman Calendar for celebration on 19 July, this date being chosen because his day of death was already used for the feast of Saints Cosmas and Damian. The new celebration was given the rank of "Double", which was changed to the equivalent rank of "Third-Class Feast" in 1960. The 1969 revision of the General Roman Calendar transferred his memorial to 27 September, moving Cosmas and Damian to 26 September to make way for him, as he is now better known in the West than they.
Vincent is honored with a feast day on 27 September in the Church of England and the Episcopal Church (USA).
One of the feasts celebrated by the French Deist Church of the Theophilanthropy was dedicated to Vincent.
Niagara University in Lewiston, NY, St. John's University in New York, New York, and DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois were founded in 1856, 1870 and 1898, respectively, by the Congregation of the Mission in the United States.
Parishes are dedicated to Vincent in Los Angeles; Washington, DC; Syracuse, New York; Chicago, Illinois; Omaha, Nebraska; Mays Landing, New Jersey; Mt. Vernon, Ohio. Houston, Texas; Delray Beach, Florida; Wheeling, West Virginia, Coventry, Rhode Island, Churchville, New York, Peryville, Missouri, Lenox Dale, Massachusetts, Girardville, Pennsylvania, Arlington, Texas, and elsewhere.
Schools are also dedicated in Vincent's name. A high school, DePaul Catholic High School, in Wayne, New Jersey; Los Angeles
St. Vincent de Paul Village, a mission-style campus of affordable and supportive apartments is dedicated in Vincent's name in San Diego, CA.
An organisation in Oakland named St Vincent de Paul distributes shoes, clothes, toys and food to those in need.
A long-term care 1,200 bed facility for elderly people is dedicated to St. Vincent de Paul in Malta. In the Philippines, a church is dedicated to him located in Ermita, Manila, and Adamson University adopted him as their Patron Saint after the Vincentian Priests took over the University.
Pierre Fresnay portrayed Vincent in the 1947 biographical film, Monsieur Vincent.