Lebbe was born in Ghent, Belgium. At the age of 12, after reading a book on the life and martyrdom of the Vincentian missionary Jean-Gabriel Perboyre, Lebbe took Vincent as his name and decided to go to China as a Vincentian priest. In 1895 he entered the Vincentian seminary of St. Lazare in Paris and, six years later was assigned to the vicariate apostolic of Peking (Beijing). From the beginning, Lebbe was convinced that missioners should become Chinese in dress, language, attitude, and even loyalty in order to win Chinese people to Christ. Remarkable success in the countryside brought him to the large city of Tientsin (Tianjin), where he attracted throngs of non-Christian Chinese intellectuals to his public lectures and he organized Catholic Action for laymen. In 1912 he and Ying Lianzhi launched the first Catholic weekly newspaper. Three years later, with the collaboration of a group of talented Chinese Catholics, he published the first Catholic daily, Yi shih pao (The social welfare). Appreciated by Chinese people for its accurate reporting and its independent outlook, it rapidly became the most widely circulated publication in northern China.
Lebbe and his friend Anthony Cotta were outspoken members of a small movement calling for the expatriate church leadership to relinquish the protection of foreign powers and to become truly Chinese. In 1916 they jolted the missionary community when they openly denounced the attempt by the French consul in Tientsin to annex to the French concession, with the collusion of the church authorities, a piece of land the Chinese authorities had refused to grant. Angry, the church authorities transferred Lebbe to a different part of China and eventually sent him back to Europe for several years. His stand, however, began a process of transformation that, in the short run, led Benedict XV to issue the apostolic letter Maximum illud of 1919 and Pius XI to ordain six Chinese bishops in 1926. In the long run, Lebbe's ideals paved the way for the revocation in 1939 of the condemnation of the Chinese rites and for the establishment in 1946 of a Chinese local church with its own hierarchy.
Between 1920 and 1927, Lebbe crisscrossed Europe helping Chinese students with room, board, and tuition and organizing them into an association. He also helped launch the priests' Society of Auxiliaries of the Missions and the Women Lay Auxiliaries of the Missions. He then returned to China to serve under one of the newly ordained Chinese bishops. In 1928 he adopted Chinese nationality and gave impetus to Chinese monasticism by founding two Chinese religious orders: The Little Brothers of St. John the Baptist, and The Little Sisters of St. Therese of the Child Jesus. After the Sino-Japanese war started in 1931, he organized his brothers into a stretcher-bearer corps. Caught in the power struggle between Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Tse-tung (Mao Zedong), Lebbe was taken captive by the Communists for six weeks in the spring of 1940 and died of exhaustion shortly after his release.