The church's design and the initial phases of its construction were entrusted to Jean-Baptiste Lepère, renowned architect of his era. The first stone was laid in August 1824 in the presence of the préfet de la Seine Gaspard de Chabrol and the archbishop of Paris Mgr de Quélen. Work proceeded slowly, and was repeatedly abandoned, being especially delayed thanks to a lack of credit as a result of the revolution of 1830. Thus it was Lepère's son-in-law, Jacques Hittorff, who finally followed the project through from 1831 to 1844, with the building opening for worship on 25 October 1844. Hittorff massively modified the initial plans (which did not plan for even a single steeple), with his church opening onto the place Franz-Liszt, giving the building a church square. He also added a system of staircases, laid out today in gardens, to aid access by horse drawn carriages.
The church's basilical plan evokes several grand schemes of religious architecture without specifically copying one in particular. Above the portico (borrowed from those of Greek temples) is a pediment sculpted by Charles-François Lebœuf-Nanteuil on the subject of "The Apotheosis of saint Vincent-de-Paul" - the saint is glorified, surrounded by figures symbolising his saintly actions (eg a missionary, a galley slave, and some Sisters of Charity devoting themselves to children or to healing the sick). Inside, the painted frieze of 1848-53 around the nave (between the two levels of columns) is by Hippolyte Flandrin, and shows 160 male and female saints advancing towards the sanctuary. The decoration of the chapel of the Virgin, in the apse added later at the back, is by William Bougereau (1885-89). The Calvary shown on the main altar is by François Rude.
The building suffered during the Paris Commune, being hit by seven shells, and its stairs, more than twenty, all pulled out to the Père-Lachaise cemetery. It is close to the Eurostar and mainline station Gare du Nord, and so is twinned with St Pancras Old Church (a church in London close to the new St Pancras International station) - this twinning was inaugurated on 11 December 2007 with a bilingual service at St Pancras Old Church.
It was made by the renowned organ-maker Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. Originally it was only made up of 47 stops over 3 keyboards and 2,669 pipes.