Catarina Vala Wins World History Association Student Paper Award

Catarina Vala stood out among the applicants for the World History Association Student Paper Prizes, ultimately securing her article the title of best student paper. VALA/COURTESY

By Adrianne Hutto, Production Editor

Catarina Vala, a junior at Manhattan College double majoring in adolescent education and history, stood out among the applicants for the World History Association Student Paper Prizes, ultimately securing the title of “Best Student Paper” for her article. 

In the realm of historical enigmas, some stories shine brighter than others, captivating generations with their intrigue. Vala’s paper, titled “Miracle of the Sun, Divided by Class: Why the Rural Response to the Miracle of the Sun Confused Portuguese Elite during World War I” stands as a celestial enigma that has baffled and fascinated in equal measure, and yet little is known about this phenomenon. 

Her paper gives readers a strong understanding of the little known event. Adam Arenson, history department chair and professor of Vala’s historical methods class, which the paper was written for, was unfamiliar with the topic when introduced to it. 

As for the award, it was Dr. Arenson who recommended Katerina to apply for it after reading her paper. “This is the World History Association, which is focused on the teaching of world history and thinking about global issues,” Dr. Arenson said. “Catarina was one of the best undergraduate papers submitted by anybody around the world in the last year, which is an amazing honor.” 

Arenson noted that Vala was the first MC student to win this specific award. 

Her paper describes the event known as the “miracle of the sun” where in 1917 a crowd of thousands of people gathered in Fátima, claiming to have witnessed the sun dance in the sky,  an event that has been since regarded as a historical anomaly.

 “Mary’s miracle at Fátima consisted of the sun moving sporadically throughout the sky, with witnesses claiming that the sun ‘turn[ed] rapidly like a firewheel’ and ‘seemed to be separated from the sky’,” Vala wrote in her paper. 

“My argument was that poor Portuguese people were more passionate about the miracle of the sun, and that they experienced it in a way that wealthier people couldn’t because of the circumstances of World War One and the anti-clerical government,” Vala said. 

With Vala’s family living just outside the town, her grandmother being a witness to this event and the benefit of her Portuguese language skills, she was the ideal writer for this topic. 

“We live about 40 minutes away from the town,” Vala said. “And so we actually visit every year. I’ve always heard about the story since I was little. It’s still very religious. It’s kind of like a monument basically.”

Despite a familial connection to the miracle, Vala takes an analytical approach to writing the paper focusing specifically on the people witnessing the event rather than the event itself. 

“I do not seek to answer whether or not a miracle happened on that day,” Vala wrote in her paper. “Rather, I will examine why thousands of people—specifically poor, rural people—believed they witnessed a miracle.”

Vala’s Portuguese background also came in handy when it came to finding sources for her paper.  

“I translated some other newspaper articles about the miracle. There was also a whole article about a journalist who was there at the site of the miracle,” Vala said. “With the help of my mom, I translated it. So once I found that newspaper, everything just kind of fell into place.”

Vala’s work reveals that rural and economically challenged individuals reacted more fervently to the miracle than their wealthier counterparts. Drawing connections to the tumultuous landscape of the time marked by the first Portuguese republic and the turbulence of World War I, Vala emphasizes that the event served as a beacon of hope for those grappling with economic hardships and uncertainties. Her analysis sheds light on the intersection of faith, class and human response to a moment frozen in time.